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Thaksin and the king

Philip Bowring

BANGKOK There is a struggle going on for the soul of Thai democracy, one that has implications for Thailand's Asian neighbors.
On the one hand, there is a populist, authoritarian model of democracy well known in Southeast Asia in which personal power counts for more than institutions and where political and economic power are closely intertwined. This is represented by Prime Minister - and erstwhile telecom tycoon - Thaksin Shinawatra.
On the other, there is a democracy rooted in liberal ideas, focused on rights and institutional checks and balances against corruption and abuse of power. In the Thai case, by far the most important balancing institution is the monarchy, unelected but revered.
This struggle has been the backdrop for Thai politics ever since Thaksin came to power five years ago, having forged, through skill and money, a dominant party, the Thai Rak Thai, in place of the unstable coalitions that had characterized Thai politics since the mid-1980s.
TRT's re-election by a landslide in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami both strengthened his own autocratic tendencies and the concerns of a Bangkok elite that had hitherto supported or tolerated Thaksin's mix of activist, growth-oriented government; populist spending and debt-relief policies aimed at the rural majority; and state-endowed favors for family, party and business cronies.
The struggle has leapt from background to foreground in recent weeks thanks to a piece of political theater initiated by media entrepreneur Sondhi Limthongkul (publisher, among other things, of Thai Day, which is distributed with the International Herald Tribune in Thailand). Sondhi and his media had turned from supporters to increasingly outspoken critics of Thaksin over the course of a year. This became too much for the intolerant Thaksin, who through various pressures, had reduced much of the media to subservience.
Taking his cue from the way the courts are used to silence critics in Singapore, he launched libel suits against Sondhi, whose popular television program was also taken off the air. Sondhi hit back by organizing rallies that attracted increasingly large crowds.
Then last week, King Bhumibol Adulyadej took the occasion of his 78th birthday address to deliver a stern admonishment to his prime minister, telling him that criticism was useful and that no one, the king included, should be exempt from it.
Thaksin withdrew his libel actions. But Sondhi carried on his attacks with new allegations of large-scale corruption in government procurement. Corruption is nothing new, but academics as well as opposition politicians and businessmen suggest that it is on a larger scale and more centralized than before and has been boosted by spending on mega-projects like Bangkok's new airport.
The king's intervention was a surprise, but it had been clear for a long time that the palace was concerned both about government corruption and cronyism and by Thaksin's attempts to use his political dominance to erode royal prerogatives.
These two issues had come together in the effort of the government party to replace an audacious auditor general, Jaruvan Maintaka, who had been digging into official malfeasance, by persuading the Constitutional Court to determine that her appointment had been technically flawed. The king failed to put his signature to her replacement, and she has remained in office. The palace had also been unhappy over Thaksin's appointment of an acting supreme patriarch of the Buddhist sangha.
It is galling for liberal democrats that regal power may be more effective than the institutional checks and balances built into Thailand's 1997 Constitution.
Thaksin has had his wings clipped by the king, corruption allegations will stay on the front pages, the main opposition Democrat Party has regained appeal and TRT just might begin to fracture if there are insufficient funds to ensure the loyalty of faction heads.
But Thaksin is likely to be around for at least another three years. His populist programs, a stable economy and his high personal profile have so far sustained his support outside a now hostile Bangkok, and he may learn the wisdom of tolerance and the unacceptability of Marcos-style cronyism in a nation where business competition is fierce.
As for Sondhi, many question his motives. He was always a controversial figure whose media ambitions more than once outran his resources, leaving unpaid bills in their wake.
But he is a risk taker and highly articulate. He was the first to take the fight to Thaksin. Whatever his future, his role as catalyst at this important juncture in the evolution of Thai democracy is assured.
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