International Herald Tribune
Bowring: Thailand: Good news and bad
Monday, February 11, 2008

HONG KONG: Good news and bad

Thailand has had an election, acquired a new prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, and, after much wrangling, seen a new cabinet sworn in last week. Seventeen months after the military coup, the nation has been returned to civilian normalcy without the bloodshed that accompanied a similar sequence of events in 1991-1992.

In a sense this represents a triumph of a spirit of compromise not so much between the military and civilians as between those who supported and those who opposed the populist authoritarian version of democracy put forward by the deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra. But do not imagine that power struggles between groups with only fitful commitments to democracy are over.

The military has taken several steps backward in the face of Thaksin's continued popularity and its own bungling while in power. The compromise has produced a government that in personnel terms is strikingly inferior even to Thaksin's last administration. But that does not mean either that it will be too weak to last even half its term, or that Samak is merely a temporary stand-in who will soon step aside to enable Thaksin to return to office.

Samak, 72, is prime minister courtesy of leading Thaksin's surrogate, the People Power Party, which emerged as the largest party from the Dec. 23 election. He is widely seen as a Thaksin puppet. His cabinet consists of a mix of Thaksin loyalists, relatives of leaders of Thaksin's now outlawed Thai Rak Thai party who have been barred from politics by the military, and agile politicians from the People Power Party's coalition partners.

Samak himself has admitted that the cabinet has an "ugly duckling" look and that qualified candidates for finance minister have turned down the job, leading him to appoint a Thaksin loyalist rather than a technocrat.

Thaksin's apparent hope has been that a Samak government would arrange for the charges against him to be dropped, the rehabilitation of other Thai Rak Thai leaders, and the revision of the constitution to remove the anti-democratic aspects - notably the composition of the Senate - imposed by the military. This would prepare the way for Thaksin's return to power, assuming the military stayed its hand.

However, Samak is already showing signs of wanting to be more than a seat warmer. Samak is an opportunistic populist who has spent 40 years in politics. At varying times, he has been both a democratic leader and a member of the extreme right, including a period as interior minister in the military-led government that violently suppressed democracy in 1976.

Now, Prime Minister Samak has made himself defense minister. Although this offends some officers who would like a politically neutral minister, it also gives the military Samak's direct ear. At the same time, Samak's ability to mould the military by removing anti-Thaksin officers from key positions is limited. Under post-coup law, senior officers cannot be reshuffled at the will of the politicians; they can only be removed by a committee that includes a majority of top brass.

On the economic front, the new government looks vulnerable, given the challenges of persistent inflation and a deteriorating international environment.

Nevertheless, though they are short on technical expertise, the ministers may prove adept at getting things done through personal connections. Thailand also has enough fiscal leeway to finance a resumption of some populist Thaksin-style spending and investment in major projects that will spur the economy.

Even some of the more notorious members of the new cabinet may be kept honest by a suspicious and watchful military, and by the opposition Democrat Party, which can generally boast higher personnel standards and intends to create a "shadow" cabinet to monitor ministerial conduct.

If the government is seen as reasonably successful, Samak is unlikely to want to step aside. If it fails, Thaksin's reputation could be tarnished, and some supporters may jump ship to join in a coalition with the Democrats.

Meanwhile, not far under the surface are the tensions created by the expectation that the royal succession may not be too far in the future. Whatever views Thais may have of the political role of the monarchy, the person and prestige of the monarch are a key part of a complex equation that includes Thaksin and his businessman-politician allies, the military, anti-Thaksin groups, some liberal democrats and some traditionalists.

The bad news is that politics will remain messy and standards of governance are unlikely to improve. The good news is that politics in Thailand remains the art of the possible rather than winner-take-all, and that economic and social development remain primarily driven by a myriad of small private initiatives rather than by the big power holders in Bangkok.