This isn't what a solution looks like in Thailand. Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images
This isn't what a solution looks like in Thailand. Photographer: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty Images

(Updates, May 22, 11:34 a.m.: Changes throughout to reflect news from Thailand.)

Thailand's military leaders admitted today what everyone else knew two days ago: They have staged a coup.

At first they claimed that Monday's imposition of martial law, which included the occupation of TV stations and the banning of protests on the streets of Bangkok, was "not a coup." Now that they have conceded the obvious, the international community needs to be more clear that this coup cannot be permanent. What Thailand needs most, as the U.S. has emphasized, are free and fair elections.

The generals claim that their efforts in the last two days to forge a political compromise ended in stalemate, and that they could not allow security to continue to deteriorate. It's true that the almost seven-month standoff between the government and protesters had grown dangerously tense. The May 7 ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on charges of abusing her office left a weak caretaker administration in place. More than two dozen people have died in political clashes in recent months. In the south, Muslim rebels have initiated a wave of attacks. The economy, which shrank 0.6 percent in the first quarter, is adding to worries.

Thailand’s Troubled Democracy

Yet no number of troops can solve the political predicament that bedevils Thailand: the tension between an urban middle class jealous of its privileges, and a poorer, rural majority that has returned populist governments to power again and again.

As Thai generals learned after their last coup in 2006, when they overthrew a government led by Yingluck's billionaire brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a military-dominated administration is sure to be shunned internationally and resented at home. Any attempt to prolong army rule indefinitely, or to rewrite the constitution and impose a new political order that favors either the royalist “Yellow Shirts” or the pro-Thaksin “Red Shirts,” would only exacerbate Thailand’s internal divides. Fissures could well open up within the army itself, which is thought to be split in its sympathies.

No solution that lacks a popular mandate will last. If the army truly wants to restore stability, it has to make its interregnum brief, and use the time to establish the conditions for new elections.

As intractable as the divide between Yellows and Reds can seem, the stubborn and self-obsessed figures at the head of each camp -- Thaksin and pro-monarchy protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban -- have made it worse. At this point, the military would be well advised to maneuver both out of the way. If Suthep, who appears to have been detained by the military, can be sidelined, then Thaksin and his cronies should also step aside. In the long run, the ruling Pheu Thai party will be better off promoting leaders not tainted by their ties to Thaksin, who has been living abroad in self-imposed exile since 2008.

Even without Thaksin to contend with, his disorganized opponents would stand little chance in any new vote. Yet they have to face the fact that rural voters are now politically mobilized and not going anywhere. Sooner or later the “Yellow” parties are going to have to develop candidates and a message that appeal to those Thais no less than to the Bangkok middle class.

Over the medium term, steps should be taken to give the provinces more power, thus lessening the urgency of winning the national vote. (Currently only the Bangkok governor is directly elected; the other 76 provincial governors are appointed.) As India's Narendra Modi has demonstrated, a competent regional leader who generates growth, jobs and opportunity can upend the political landscape.

Over the longer term, as Yellow Shirt leaders have rightly argued, Thailand needs stronger, more independent institutions -- not least to mediate political conflicts so that the army is not tempted to intervene again. But the anti-government protesters in Bangkok are wrong to think that these can be imposed by a council of "wise men," or the Thai army, or even the ailing king.

Such institutions must be built by chosen representatives of the Thai people, or they will always be suspect. The military can begin this process of reform with a deal that allows for new elections. But only the people can complete it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.