IN an astonishing turn of events, engineered by Thailand's elite and vocal minorities, `people power' has come to acquire a strange meaning: a large `protest vote' is more potent than the more numerous `yes-vote'. As a result, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose Thai Rak Thai Party polled about 60 per cent in the unofficial tallies of the vote in the April 2 snap general elections, has had to bow out of office.
Thaksin had called the snap poll just over a year after being elected Prime Minister, in an effort to ride out a political crisis over his personal problems with the Opposition and the elite (Frontline, March 10).
Unusual was the way in which a determined minority hounded him out despite his immense popularity among the poor masses on account of some of his schemes for them. To recognise this reality is not to justify Thaksin's controversial actions. Surprising, though, was that the political denouement occurred without the Opposition parties proving that the interests of the poor were immaterial to the business of the state in a developing country. Significantly, in this context, some in the Opposition had been in power in the past.
Nor proven was the suspicion that the Thai state had suffered directly on account of Thaksin's alleged manipulation of the laws. The central issue, which the Opposition parties cited in support of its boycott of the snap poll, was that his family made huge tax-free gains by selling its mega firm to a Singapore company. While Thaksin's family paid no taxes under the Thai laws, no case was made out that any laws, prevalent at the time of the sale, were broken by him or that he did not care about a "conflict of interest" arising out of his position as Prime Minister.
In a sense, these were legal niceties rather than conclusive exonerations of Thaksin. His alleged abuses of power and corruption were compounded by the accusations of "callousness about human rights violations" in his administration's wars on suspected drug traffickers and Muslim "insurgents" in the majority-Buddhist kingdom.
Such charges helped the Opposition, especially the Democrats, and the relatively autonomous Alliance for Democracy to broaden their anti-Thaksin base.
The Opposition did not field even a single candidate. In the fray were a few candidates from some instantly-formed parties, which were said to have been created or catalysed by Thaksin himself for the sake of a competition.
The Opposition called on the electorate to register the `no-vote' or abstention option on the ballot paper. The objective was to cite a `no-vote" as a sign of political protest.
In the event, about 60 per cent of the 45-million-strong electorate went to the polls, despite the rule of mandatory voting. A few million voters cast invalid ballots, either intentionally or otherwise, while the no-vote options outweighed the ruling party's tallies in a number of constituencies.
Above all, in nearly 40 constituencies, mainly in the areas dominated by Muslim "insurgents," the unopposed candidates from Thaksin's ruling party failed to secure the mandatory minimum of 20 per cent vote. This necessitated byelections, which his party could scarcely hope to win. And, under the electoral laws, the new 500-member Parliament cannot be constituted unless all seats are filled.
Faced with this procedural paradox, Thaksin quit as Prime Minister on April 5, appointed his close associate, Chidchai, as interim leader until the new Parliament could formally elect the next head of government. However, with Thaksin maintaining that he would take seat as an ordinary Member of Parliament and continue to steer his party at the helm, the Opposition grew jittery and wanted him to renounce politics.
The revered King, constitutional head, did not have to formally intervene, despite frequent calls from the Opposition, In a perceptive comment, Chris Baker, an expert on Thailand's politics and processes, noted that Thaksin's lasting legacy was his success in taking the government to the masses.P. S. Suryanarayana