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
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
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.