International Herald Tribune
Thaksin's long shadow
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Two celebrations this week underline the uncertain future of Thailand's governmental institutions nearly three months after a coup overthrew the elected administration of Thaksin Shinawatra.

One was the birthday Tuesday of King Bhumibol Adulyadej, especially commemorated this year, his 60th on the throne. But it is also a reminder of the mortality of the monarch, who turned 79, and the role of the palace in underwriting the September coup.

Dec. 10 is Constitution Day, hardly a cause for rejoicing given that the coup leaders abrogated the existing constitution and have barely begun work on its successor, which is due to be put to a take-it-or-leave-it referendum some time next year.

The constitutional issue is indirectly linked to the eventual royal succession. In the Thai system, the elder son does automatically succeed. In private, at least, the relative fitness of different royal persons and their civilian and military connections is a subject of discussion.

As for the constitution, debate will be intense. But a key factor that should not be overlooked now is that the metropolitan property- and car-owning middle and upper classes are not the bastions of liberal democracy they were once assumed to be. Many of those who supported the overthrow of the military in 1992 and brought about the generally liberal and balanced 1997 constitution may now fear Thaksin-style populist democracy more than they dislike the military's pretensions to being the final political arbiter.

There is now an increasingly vocal advocacy of the notion that Thailand is somehow not suited to one-man one- vote democracy. This does not just come from the military and the most fervent coup supporters. It is also found in a wider universe of academics, senior bureaucrats and establishment business leaders. The people, it is argued, are too ignorant, too easily bought by populists of Thaksin's ilk. Provincial politicians are, it is said, "godfathers" and local power brokers more interested in business deals than in national policies.

There is, of course, an element of truth in this. But ironically Thaksin became to be loathed by the metropolitan elite precisely because, using the 1998 constitutional provisions aimed at consolidating the many political parties, he corralled many of the provincial bosses into a single party, Thai Rak Thai, with a clear majority in Parliament.

Thaksin may have been an authoritarian populist who admired Malaysia's Mahathir bin Mohamad and Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. He used money and the mechanisms of state to subvert liberal democracy. But his farm credit, rural and health spending policies also did something to offset the huge income imbalances between rural and urban Thailand.

There was a degree of social justice as well as political calculation in Thaksin's policies, which came to be denounced as irresponsible by those now in power. It is worth recalling that a similar attempt by a democratic government in the mid-1970s was likewise ended by a palace-approved coup.

The recent coup's avowed intention of reducing tensions by removing the focus of disagreement, Thaksin, may have the opposite impact by emphasizing the income gap between the metropolitan critics of the ousted leader and his rural and provincial supporters.

The metropolitan middle class will have to be a lot more voluble if the conservative forces represented by army, senior bureaucrats and palace is not to write a constitution replacing many directly elected parliamentarians by representatives of functional and interest groups chosen for their support for the established order.

Therein lies the making of an ongoing political struggle in which Thaksin will surely continue to play a role.