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Thailand’s New Government: Back to the Future?

February 6, 2008

When Thailand’s military leaders carried out their coup on September 19, 2006, they justified their action by saying they had to suspend democracy in order to save it as they believed Thailand under Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule was irrevocably dividing the country. The military wanted to prevent Thaksin, who so ably manipulated the 1997 constitution for his own self-interest, and the social forces he came to represent from ever returning to power. But neither the new constitution nor the December 23, 2007, election appears to have prevented Thaksin supporters from gaining political control or helped to bridge the significant divisions in the country. Instead, the election has returned Thailand to what had been hoped was a bygone era of coalition governments marked by less effective political leadership and a stronger bureaucracy.

On January 28, 2008, Thailand’s House of Representatives elected Mr. Samak Sundaravej, head of the People’s Power Party (PPP), to be the 25th Prime Minister of Thailand. Mr. Samak and the PPP now lead a six member coalition government with a total of 316 MPs out of a 480 seat legislature. Many in the PPP are former members of the Thaksin’s disbanded “Thai Rak Thai” (Thais Love Thais) party and have made no secret of their loyalty to the former Prime Minister. Prime Minister Samak admits he is a proxy for Thaksin. Although Thaksin, who is in exile, said he will not return to politics, he has expressed a strong desire to return to Thailand. Prime Minister Samak and PPP members said they would welcome him back. Although Thaksin may never hold elected office again, many Thais believe his power would not be mitigated as he would be the puppet master pulling the government’s strings.

The coalition government came to power on a platform that is anti-elite, anti-military, and geared toward a continuation of Thaksin’s programs targeting poverty reduction in rural areas. The new government is proposing another three-year debt moratorium for farmers, “soft loans” for the country’s 70,000 villages, and other populist economic policies that will rely on fiscal largesse and large infrastructure investments to spur the country’s sluggish economy. The coalition should have no difficulty in passing these programs based on its numerical strength. But Prime Minister Samak has a long reputation of being contentious and abrasive, so his ability to keep coalition parties satisfied will be challenging. Moreover, leaders of the other political parties that comprise the coalition are not necessarily enamored by former Prime Minister Thaksin, and internal differences may cause these parties to eventually defect. Consequently, the new coalition may prove unstable and not last a full term.

The election did nothing as far as the political disposition of the country is concerned. Thais remain divided both regionally and by social strata. The poor and working class in rural areas tend to favor the former Prime Minister and his policies, whereas the middle class and elites in urban areas tend to favor the Democrat Party, the major opposition party, or anyone else but Thaksin. But what might happen if Thaksin returns to Thailand? His return will likely exacerbate tensions between pro and anti-Thaksin factions. The movement to oust Thaksin in 2006 brought protestors from the People’s Alliance for Democracy out en masse. But Thaksin supporters can also assemble large groups of supporters. Turmoil may ensue. How might the military respond? Another coup in the name of protecting the country cannot be discounted, as a politically resurgent Thaksin is not beyond the realm of possibility, given his extraordinary wealth and indomitable will. Until a political leader is found who can bridge these divisions, future Thai governments, at least in the short and medium term, will likely be weak and possess little cohesion. Sadly, this new government is reminiscent of the ineffective coalition governments of the 1980s and 1990s that the 1997 constitution was meant to correct. Indeed, Thailand has gone back to the future.

John Brandon is the Director of The Asia Foundation’s International Relations Programs.

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