BANGKOKAt home he seems more secure than any elected Thai leader has ever been.
Abroad he is beginning to make a mark, at least with his neighbors. But two
years after he came to power following the success of his Thai Rak Thai party in
the Jan. 6, 2001, elections, Taksin Shinawatra remains a divisive figure.
The police colonel turned telecoms tycoon
has made good use of the strengthening of Thailand's democratic system which
followed the financial crisis. He has taken advantage of post-crisis economic
recovery to cement his popularity, reaping the benefit of painful reforms
undertaken by his predecessor. Symbolically, he welcomed 2003 by announcing the
early repayment of a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF.
Since the elections he has added to his
majority by further consolidating political groupings. He is likely to see out a
full term as prime minister - a rare event - and to be re-elected. He is seen as
aiming to implant himself in Thai history as firmly as Mahathir bin Mohamad in
Malaysia, with a long period in office and a leadership role in Southeast Asia.
Therein lies the problem, from the point
of view of his critics. They regard him as an unprincipled opportunist who has
more respect for the authoritarian tendencies of the likes of Mahathir than for
the liberal and participatory ideals which have made Thailand, always an open
society, an example of plural and democratic development.
They accuse him of favoring the sort of
unhealthy business-government linkages which contributed to the Asian crisis.
Before he went into politics, his success in business owed much to deals with
the government. Nor can he quite shake off the memory that in 2001 he narrowly
escaped being disbarred by the Constitutional Court for hiding his assets.
There is less evidence now of the money
politics practiced by businessmen-politicians in the boom decade before 1997.
But critics suggest that money politics has been centralized, not reduced.
Middle-class, academic and media critics
accuse Taksin of trying to undermine key principles of separation of powers and
decentralization of government, using executive powers to push through his own
agenda. Grassroots nongovernmental organizations demonstrating on rural and
social issues accuse him of using force, not reason, against them.
The wisdom of Taksin's advisers is widely
questioned, and he is known to be at odds with two former prime ministers close
to the palace, Prem Tinsulanonda and Anand Panyarachun.
None of this has yet seriously undermined
his popularity, which is based on a mix of economic recovery, appeal to
post-crisis nationalist grievances, superb management of his provincial
political alliances, some populist budget giveaways, especially to rural voters,
and support for small businesses against foreign competitors.
He is a fine salesman, and always in the
thick of the action. Even his critics are relieved that his parliamentary
majority has brought greater stability and less horse-trading of ministries.
Budget deficits and his emphasis on
domestic demand were the right policies to spur the economy. But whether he can
rein them in now that growth has returned is a key question.
So, too, is the durability of his hold on
Parliament if other things start to go wrong. He may think that Thailand wants a
strong, decisive leader. Perhaps it does. But the record is not supportive.
Thais may prefer to change prime ministers frequently and at their will, but
monarchs infrequently and at God's will.
In Southeast Asia, Taksin may have an
easier ride to higher status because of the leadership vacuum being created by
the retirements of Mahathir and Singapore's Goh Chok Tong. President Megawati
Sukarnoputri is a lightweight, and President Gloria Arroyo is leaving in 2004.
Burma is a pariah and Vietnam lacks a visible leader.
Taksin has been making new proposals for
regional cooperation, kowtowing to China, signing deals with Malaysia and
Bangladesh, and trying without much success to come to terms with Burma. This
year he will play host to the Asia-Pacific Eco- nomic Cooperation meeting, a
world-class photo opportunity.
All this will boost his image at home and
perhaps Thailand's standing overseas. But Thailand's clout comes from its
central position in mainland Southeast Asia, its strong economy,
internationalist character and reputation for pragmatism, and the quality of its
diplomats. Mahathir was in office for two decades before he stepped up to the
world stage. So some ask: Does Thailand, or the region, need a prime minister
with the urge to become an international figure as quickly as he became a