There is scarcely a doubt that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his party,
Thai Rak Thai, will win the election in Thailand on Sunday. But that does not
mean that the voting will be of little importance either to Thailand or its
At stake is the extent to which national
institutions and the Constitution are able to check personal and executive
power, and whether Thailand moves further down the road of the populist
authoritarianism not unfamiliar in either Southeast Asia or Latin America.
The margin of TRT's victory will be one
key to that future. The other will be the prime minister's own response to
becoming the first democratically elected Thai leader likely to serve two - and
perhaps more - full parliamentary terms.
Thaksin's position has been strengthened
by the tsunami, which drew attention away from politics at a time when some of
his shoot-from-the-hip policies were beginning to erode his support. The
disaster enabled him to display his hands-on, action-oriented abilities and the
mix of pragmatism and nationalism that has enabled him to appeal to atavistic
sentiments without causing undue offense to foreigners. But he was bound to win
in any event.
The first reason for that is the buoyant
economy. The groundwork for recovery from the Asian crisis was laid by his
predecessor, but Thaksin's populist stimulatory measures - including public
spending on major projects and pressure on banks to pursue bolder lending
policies - have added to the new glow of confidence. Likewise, debt relief for
farmers and low-cost health care have been hugely popular, especially among
Thailand's oft-neglected rural majority.
The economic cycle has smiled on Thaksin.
The question for his second term is whether he has been carried away by his own
rhetoric, promising higher economic growth than is feasible without creating
another boom/bust cycle, adding to the national debt and undermining the central
bank's hard work in having restored the banking system to health.
The second reason for his success is his
"end justifies the means" attitude, most apparent in his war on drugs, which saw
the extra-judicial killing of large numbers of alleged drug dealers. The
campaign undoubtedly undermined law-based governance, and whether it will have
any long-term impact on the drug trade is questionable, but it has
unquestionably been popular.
Thaksin has also cemented his position by
using state powers to persuade most news organizations to avoid critical comment
and exposés of scandals and instead to provide outlets for a well-oiled
government/TRT publicity machine. One way or another, institutional checks and
balances like the Counter Corruption Commission and the Constitution Court have
lost their will to challenge the executive.
Thaksin's pro-business rhetoric and
pressure for generous write-offs for indebted companies has won him many
supporters, particularly among the Sino-Thai business community. This has helped
fend off criticism that his own family company, the giant Shin telecoms group,
has been a major beneficiary of government decisions and even been a factor in
Thailand's more friendly relations with the junta in Myanmar.
For many, Thaksin's policies in the
Muslim south of Thailand have been crude and confused, exacerbating old problems
there, endangering relations with Malaysia and casting a shadow over his
international image. But his nationalistic response is unlikely to lose him
votes in most of the country, which is largely ignorant of its Muslim-majority
That is not to say there is no opposition
or criticism. Thaksin is deeply disliked by many, especially among the urban
middle class and established elites, as well as academics and social activists
who fear his methods and distrust his mix of populism and money politics. But
lackluster leadership of the main opposition Democrat Party has added to
Thaksin's own luster and enabled TRT to escape relatively unscathed from various
scandals, the mishandling of the South and such failed gimmicks as Thaksin's
attempt to buy a British soccer club.
Ironically, Thaksin's organizational
skills and money enabled him to make the best use of constitutional changes
introduced when the Democrats were in office to encourage the formation of a few
large parties in place of the multitude that used to make Thailand's democratic
politics so unstable. The long-established Democrats own institutional base has
thus far proved unable to compete with the appeal of a party based on one man.
The Democrats will doubtless still be
around when Thais finally tire of Thaksin. But meanwhile it remains to be seen
whether re-election will make for a kinder, gentler, wiser leader. Or whether
like Juan Peron or Ferdinand Marcos he will be hoist on his own sense of destiny
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