International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Thailand's next steps
Tuesday, December 25, 2007

HONG KONG: The Thai election brings a return to some sort of democracy 15 months after a palace-backed military coup threw out Thaksin Shinawatra and brought in a new Constitution. But it remains unclear whether the pro- and anti-Thaksin camps can agree on a set of political rules that both will follow. What, if anything, has been learned from the past two years of turmoil?

To recap events. Back in late 2005, Thaksin was facing rising resentment, particularly among the Bangkok middle class, as he worked to undermine constitutional checks on his power. Critics said his policies were exacerbating the problems in the Muslim south, and there were widespread allegations of corruption among his ministers. The country's elite, meanwhile, was unhappy with his populism and his seeming attempts to overshadow royalty. In the face of demonstrations, particularly after he sold his controlling interest in Thailand's largest telecommunications company to Singapore, Thaksin called an election that was boycotted by much of the opposition and subsequently declared void by the courts. Though he still controlled the political machinery his power was slipping, with political allies and the media turning against him.

Then the military stepped in, seizing power prior to a new election expected in November 2006. The subsequent Constitution, dictated by the military, has restored elections but given significant power to appointed senators and the judiciary. Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved.

Now with the very strong showing of the People Power Party, a surrogate for Thai Rak Thai, the military (and by implication the palace) has been rebuffed, a reflection of Thaksin's popularity and the military's poor showing in government.

A prolonged period of horse trading is likely before a new government emerges. There are, however, some reasons for optimism. The military is now admitting that, regardless of the election result, another coup is out of the question. Many of those who supported the coup now acknowledge that it was a crude way of clipping Thaksin's wings. Even the junta's attempts to bring corruption charges against him have faltered.

The electorate has also rebuffed the military's attempt to weaken the democratic system by trying to ensure, through constitutional changes, a return to the complex coalitions of small parties that characterized politics prior to the 1997 Constitution, which Thaksin used to create a dominant party.

In this election, not only did People Power get close to an overall majority, but the Democrat Party, the second largest, did well at the expense of smaller ones.

If the military can swallow its pride, there is now a real chance that Thaksin will return to Thailand and either assume the top job again or decide who does. However, it is not clear that Thaksin himself has learned the right lessons. He has proved his popularity and political skills, but he has yet to acknowledge that his authoritarian attitudes, his condoning of extra-judicial killings and his crude policies in the south undercut democracy. He has wrapped himself in the cloak of democracy, but seems more in the Peronist tradition of populist authoritarian than a prime minister in a constitutional monarchy with strong laws and institutions. His choice of leader for the People Power Party, Samak Sundaravej, who was interior minister in the government installed by the military after its brutal 1976 suppression of democracy, did not inspire confidence in those looking for a new Thaksin.

But maybe Thaksin has learned that Thai politics is ever fluid and that, though people may at times like strong leaders, they can tire of them rapidly. Thais also appear to like the cut and thrust of electoral competition and the ballot box.

Another question hangs over the Democrat Party, the oldest in Thailand and for many years the standard bearer of democracy. Under its banner, Thaksin's predecessor as prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, ran an effective multiparty government in the difficult times of the Asian crisis. Yet the Democrat Party's reputation has been tainted by its association with the elite opposition to Thaksin, its connivance with the military and status as leader of the "stop-Thaksin" camp.

Overall, the situation is confused rather than dangerous. But the nation is divided and its leaders need to find a modus operandi while King Bhumipol, who is now 80, still lives. In the absence of the king's personal prestige, there is strong potential for power struggles to become more vicious. Thailand does not need new constitutions or sets of political rules. It needs the country's leaders, be they politicians like Thaksin, the military or the royalists to abide by them.