In Thailand: Thaksin – Ending of an Era?
June 13, 2007
The last two weeks have not gone well for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. On May 30, the Constitutional Tribunal disbanded Thai Rak Thai (TRT), the political party that Thaksin established and rode to power on a wave of support from rural and working class Thai voters. The verdict also banned Thaksin and 110 other party officials – a significant portion of former ministers and MPs ” from politics for five years. On June 11, the Assets Examination Committee, a special committee set up by the military appointed government to investigate corruption charges against the former Prime Minister and other TRT politicians, moved to freeze Mr. Thaksin’s assets in Thailand. Thaksin remains outside of Thailand, and with widespread speculation that he would be arrested soon after his return he is likely to remain in London for the time being.
All signs indicate that the bad news should continue for Mr. Thaksin. The government of Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is becoming increasingly unpopular, and under enormous pressure to transition power back to an elected government. With an election tentatively scheduled for December ” already three months later than initially promised ” the government probably realizes the window of time to resolve the lingering political controversies of the Thaksin years is beginning to close. So, it seems likely that the corruption trials against him, his family and entourage are likely to accelerate in the coming months, which will in turn further aggravate pro-Thaksin demonstrations. Many analysts believe that the critical milestone that must be reached before the military will restore democracy is a guarantee that Thaksin’s political career is over.
Thaksin’s legacy, however, is unlikely to end with his personal and/or political demise, or the ending of his party. In fact, Thaksin may have created a political phenomenon that could have an enduring effect on Thai politics. For the first time, Thailand’s voters from the rural areas and working classes embraced a party en masse, and on a national scale. Previous governments relied on coalitions of parties based on regional affiliation or patronage networks, and were never able to develop a truly national base of support. The ubiquity and staying power of Thaksin’s popularity among the rural and blue collar population is due, in part, to his ability to absorb these smaller parties; but it can also be attributed to a compelling set of policies that directly appealed to this voting bloc, and a track-record of delivering on these policies while in office. The government delivered services and programs that ” based on the perceptions of the target constituents; i.e., rural and working class voters ” represented a shift from past governments that tended to focus investment and services on the urban areas. It’s important to note that many of these policies were driven by populist or opportunistic political strategies to appeal to a mass constituency, with little regard for long-term budgetary or governance implications. However, the strategy was successful enough to allow a new party with a nascent grassroots machine to grow rapidly into a political juggernaut that could only be removed by a military coup. The innovation that mattered was the use of mass appeal, based on personality and a set of carefully crafted policies that arose out of an astute analysis of the fault lines of Thai politics.
Thaksin’s legacy is certainly mixed and has left Thailand worse off on many counts. Thaksin’s wealth and his ability to cobble together alliances with rural political bosses were also instrumental in his consolidation of power, with far more detrimental consequences for Thai politics. Over the past seven years, there have been many credible reports of vote buying, political intimidation, and manipulation of the media for political ends. Furthermore, the re-emergence of violence in Southern Thailand and numerous corruption scandals have left deep scars that will take years to heal.
Despite the turbulence of the TRT era, however, it seems that the fabric of Thai politics has been fundamentally changed, and possibly for the better. Parties are more likely to compete over issues and performance in the future, because TRT proved that a policy platform that is well crafted (and well presented) can deliver millions of votes. Voters’ expectations of government have also changed, which is likely to make them demand more accountability from government. Voters will be judging parties based on their attention to issues, and are less willing to accept the old system of Bangkok paternalism.
While the political turmoil is likely to continue for several more years, there is some hope that the Thaksin era may have a lasting, positive impact on Thai democracy.
Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Assistant Director for Governance, Law, and Civil Society programs.
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