A political wave in Thailand

Print edition : March 11, 2005

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra wins a re-election with a massive mandate, surprising his critics and promising Thailand a good chance of political stability.

in Singapore

Thaksin Shinawatra who was re-elected Thai Prime Minister on February 6.-SAEED KHAN/AFP

THE `Thaksinisation' of Thailand's politics has received a tremendous boost following the general elections on February 6. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic leader who has often thrived on controversies, won a re-election of unprecedented proportions.

The stamp of `Thaksinisation' - a mix of populist policies, a certain willingness to `think the unthinkable' and a high measure of self-esteem that his critics see as the arrogance of power - will, in the short term, be the defining feature of Thailand's new 500-member House of Representatives. How well Thaksin utilises his immense new power will determine whether he can indeed become Thailand's man of destiny in the early part of the 21st century. The daunting challenge of harnessing the massive mandate will outweigh the opportunities for governance.

Although by mid-February the official notification of the final results was yet to be made in view of a re-poll in some constituencies, no one was in doubt about the overall results - Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thailand) Party had clearly won an overwhelming majority making it `constitutionally' impossible for the enfeebled Opposition Democrats and others to embark on no-confidence moves against the Prime Minister or the Ministers. Different numerical benchmarks apply to the admission of no-trust resolutions against these two categories of office-holders for parliamentary debate.

Accused of having turned his electoral triumph of 2001 into a vote for an "authoritarian" rule, Thaksin, a business magnate-turned-politician, finds himself strengthened by a renewed democratic verdict, which will not be easy for his opponents to argue against. Thaksin's "democratic authoritarianism" is not, of course, all that unusual in countries with elective systems of governance. However, though controversies about his style and even vote-winning "methods" may continue to remain in focus, Thaksin has stunned his critics and also provided Thailand with a good chance of political stability.

Yet, much will depend as much on his own sense of fair play as on the Opposition's "stamina" to play its legitimate role, if Thailand, which has had 16 constitutions since the abolition of absolute monarchy in 1932, is to benefit from this new chance of longer term political stability.

Analysis, in Thailand itself, about Thaksin's latest feat centres on the belief that he has been swept back to power on the crest of a political tsunami, as it were. The argument is that he has been able to direct the nation's attention to his rapid reaction to the tsunami of December 26 by empathising with the survivors and relatives of the victims, providing relief and undertaking rehabilitation work in as orderly a fashion as might have been possible in the face of a natural disaster that Thailand had not known at all.

Not surprisingly, the Opposition had more or less conceded defeat even before the balloting took place. It was assumed that the poll put the Opposition in a no-win situation as Thaksin's response to the tsunami had at least momentarily swept away the concerns among sections of the people about his style as the "chief executive officer" of the state and the possible long-term consequences of his policies. While some of these policies were widely seen to benefit the poor, at least in the short run, critics would point to his apparent unconcern for or lack of attention to human rights abuses in the enforcement of his "war on drugs" and his actions against terrorists in the politically restive southern provinces.

Thai soldier guards ballot boxes in Yala province, 1,200 km south of Bangkok.-SURAPAN BOONTHANOM/REUTERS

The immediate issues are doubtless relevant to Thaksin's second administration, which will be a rare one-party government if he chooses not to share power with his coalition partner, the Chart Thai Party. However, unlike in the past, the magnitude of his new success gives Thailand a chance to consider longer term issues of constitutional governance without a political crisis as the definitive backdrop.

Thirayuth Boonmi, a prominent student leader during the turbulent 1970s that saw an anti-authoritarian popular movement against the 1972 Constitution, outlined a "strategy of good governance" as recently as during the run-up to the 1997 Constitution. Thaksin became Prime Minister in 2001 as a result of the first general elections held under the 1997 basic statute. Thirayuth described "good governance" as "national governance", to distinguish it from the concept advocated by the West for the developing world. He pleaded that "good governance should be an interactive collaboration between democratic government and society, which includes the private sector and the non-governmental organisations". Such governance "emphasises participation, transparency and accountability".

Significantly, in this context, Thaksin's professional background as a "fabulously wealthy" telecommunications magnate in the first place is not a disqualification for political power, even by the touchstone of a "nationalist" ideal.

Studying the question whether the January 2001 general elections had vindicated the long process of political "reform" in Thailand, a close observer, Duncan McCargo, concluded that even the "people's Constitution" of 1997 and the manner in which institutions under it functioned still left "Thai politics" at a "difficult juncture". One of the reasons that prompted such a conclusion along a spectrum of opinion was the perception that Thaksin, who contested the 2001 elections "under the shadow of an investigation by the National Counter-Corruption Commission" over alleged non-disclosure of assets, was later acquitted by the Constitutional Court on the basis of a "legal technicality" that he was not holding a public office on the day he filed his declaration.

Thaksin, who had at other times held the posts of Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, had also remarked that it was "strange" that he had to subject himself to the judgment of "appointed commissioners and judges, whom people did not have a chance to choose", while he himself had been voted to power by millions of people.

With Thaksin having now come a long way in legitimising and consolidating his power base, the focus may well shift to policies, although allegations of vote-buying and other corrupt practices came to the fore even during the latest poll. These charges pertain to the entire political community, often derided as practitioners of "elite democracy", and not just the Thai Rak Thai Party.

As a man with a business background, Thaksin has already intensified his country's economic diplomacy through free-trade negotiations with some key countries, including India.

His success in hosting the 2003 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum went beyond the diplomacy of trade and commerce. With help from the United States, he was able to ensure a secure environment for the major event in the specific context of the international terrorist threats traced to Al Qaeda and its suspected regional affiliate, the Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.).

Thaksin not only played an active role in the U.S.-led operations that led to the arrest of the "J.I. mastermind", Hambali (an Indonesian national), but also sparked the concerns of human rights activists over Thailand's operations against armed Muslim separatists in the southern provinces of the mainly Buddhist kingdom (Frontline, 2004). Observers like Chidchanok Rahimmula point out that the root of the present crisis in southern Thailand should be traced to the circumstances in which the old Malay kingdom of Pattani was "annexed" to the Kingdom of Thailand.

On foreign policy issues, Thaksin has steered Thailand closer to Washington, securing it the appellation of a "major non-NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) ally" of the U.S. At least two Thai military officers have been killed in southern Iraq where they were posted on a "humanitarian mission" in aid of the U.S. occupation troops. Thaksin had come under political fire for sending over 440 officers, including doctors and frontline military command personnel, to Iraq in 2003, without taking the Thai public into confidence. These officers have since returned to Thailand, but Bangkok's U.S.-centric foreign policy has not been given up.

Overall, the question now is whether the "Thaksinisation" of politics will also usher in "democratisation" in the long run, given the concerns in Thailand that there should be fair means to "mediate" between competing interests "once King Bhumibol Adulyadej's all-steadying influence eventually passes from the scene".

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