07.04.11

Thailand’s Shaky Revolution

A populist wave swept the party of exiled prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra back into power. Can his sister live up to the hype—and fend off the spurned military elite? By Lennox Samuels.

In the run-up to last Sunday’s general election in Thailand, a host of politicians, including Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, warned darkly about the ultimate horror of an opposition win: the return of Thaksin Shinawatra, the premier ousted in a 2006 bloodless coup. But the campaign to frighten Thais with the nation’s perennial bogeyman failed spectacularly, culminating in a clear victory for the current Thaksin proxy—and Abhisit’s resignation as leader of the ruling Democrat party.

By Monday, the latest Thaksin clone, his younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was announcing that her Puea Thai party has forged a coalition with four smaller parties and is prepared to form a new government, with her as prime minister—the country’s first female head of government. With Thaksin acolytes rejoicing in restaurants and cafes, and on street corners around the country, it appeared Thailand’s long-running experiment with democracy had finally matured.

“You have to appreciate the proportions of this victory,” said political scientist Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak. “Voters have shown a clear pattern of preference. It is a clear verdict on a few issues. Abhisit has not got the job done, and he has not captured hearts and minds despite all sorts of help from the military, the judiciary, the Yellow Shirts, and others."

But the joy in the Land of Smiles is borne on an undercurrent of unease that could explode into bloody confrontation. For all Yingluck’s talk of reconciliation, the election statistics themselves underline the divisions that roil the country: The Democrats won big in Bangkok and the south, while Puea Thai claimed much of the north and northeast—Thaksin’s longtime strongholds.

Painfully aware of their country’s history of military coups, violence and corruption, Thais are mostly holding their breath. Will the military step in? Will the pro-government, pro-military Yellow Shirts take to the streets again? Will the pro-opposition Red Shirts respond in kind? Will the so-called elites attempt to use the judiciary to nullify the results? The answers to such questions will determine whether this transition will be peaceful.

For now, the military has indicated the troops will remain in their barracks. The Yellow Shirts have said they will accept the results. The Red Shirts, at least for now, have no reason to go out and occupy any Bangkok neighborhoods, as they did for weeks last year in the Ratchaprasong district—an occupation that ended when the army stormed the barricades on May 19, 2010, in an offensive that left 90 dead.

Not that the generals are known for showing their hands ahead of suddenly deposing elected leaders. “If they want to do it they will not give any indication,” said Dr. Pranee Thiparat of Chulalongkorn University. But she added that Army brass is likely to watch what the new government does before taking any kind of action. “I look at the military as an interest group,” she said. “These people don’t have loyalty to any particular government; they are loyal to their own interests.”

Thaksin will be calling many of the shots from his Middle East redoubt, a reality few dispute.

Undoubtedly. But like many of Thailand’s traditional “elites”—others include business and the rabid monarchists—the military has demonstrated a particularly deep loathing for Thaksin. They attribute the antipathy to the ex-premier’s alleged corruption. But it most certainly is fueled in part by the wily politician’s skill at manipulating the Thai masses—something that a series of Bangkok-centric leaders, including Abhisit, have been unable to duplicate. “Thaksin knew how to talk to people,” said Pranee. Some even complained that Thaksin was seeking to usurp the role of Thailand’s beloved and long-serving King Bhumibol Adulyadej—who is now 83, frail, and passes most of his days in residence at a hospital.

Even as Abhisit conceded defeat, he lashed out at Thaksin, arguing Puea Thai had not received a mandate to bring him back. “The Democrat Party will always be here to oppose any attempt” to exonerate Thaksin, he said on national TV.

From self-imposed exile in Dubai—where he settled to stay out of prison after being convicted in absentia on corruption charges—Thaksin has been as magnanimous as his sister has been conciliatory. Yingluck insists the matter of her brother is on the back burner while she focuses on grappling with the nation’s economic woes, poverty, and the wide chasm between haves and have-nots. Thaksin said recently that he wishes “to talk” with opponents and that there’s no hurry about returning home.

Even so, he will be calling many of the shots from his Middle East redoubt, a reality few dispute. “He’s the real guy running the show,” Pranee said. “Yes, she wants to bring him back, but she will follow what Abhisit has done. She will use the law. But first she will try to get a very solid, stable government. And he doesn’t have to come back anyway. He can manipulate well from overseas.”

Thitinan had a similar view: “Yes, he’s a puppet master; yes, he ran the parties through clones.” But, he added, it is not about that. “It’s the voices speaking about a new emerging order in Thailand. Thaksin’s opponents deny these voices—they don’t exist. They say it’s all about Thaksin manipulating and scheming for his own purposes.”

In fact, Thaksin is a billionaire who was shrewd and adroit enough to make many Thais believe he understood their pain, casting himself as a “populist” notwithstanding the fortune he made in the telecoms industry. “Thai Rak Thai (the first iteration of Thaksin’s political party) went out and found what voters wanted and catered to those voters,” Thitinan said. It’s a strategy Abhisit coopted, talking often, albeit unpersuasively, about “poor people.” Clearly not enough of those people took the prime minister seriously. “His populism was welfare promotion,” Thitinan said.

But so-called populism is in many respects a mere sop to the Thai electorate, regardless of who is peddling it. Like others before her, Yingluck Shinawatra, with big brother in the background, will find that governing requires far more than offering low-interest loans to farmers, getting more rural students into universities, and helping some underprivileged people with housing.

“There’s no long-term planning for the Thai economy,” said Bunluasak Pussarungsri, head of research at CIMB Thai Bank, “just short-term populism to get elected. That’s true of all the parties. iPads; iPhones for students. It’s absurd. And it’s easy to talk about raising the minimum wage, but that could force industries like shoes and textiles and garments out of business.”

Puea Thai should be talking about a plan for a stable economy, balanced growth, and improving the nation’s competitiveness, Bunluasak said. “Spending too much too soon on populist schemes can result in recession and may lead to an economic crisis.” It is a warning Yingluck Shinawatra may well want to heed—lest she finds herself in the wilderness with her brother before she even has a chance to bring him home.