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Thaksin Saga in Thailand: Another Round

Thaksin FCCJ 2011

Thaksin Shinawatra (SNA)

By Todd Crowell

SNA (Tokyo) — Thailand has had a pretty good year since the demonstrations of April-May 2010 that culminated in a bloody crackdown in which at least 91 people died. The country is largely peaceful, the economy is thriving, unemployment is low, and the currency is strong. All these things are usually good omens for ruling party success at the ballot box, but the national election, which will be held on Sunday is more likely to muddy than clarify the long-running political drama that has divided the country for more than a decade.

This election represents yet another around in the conflict that pits supporters of ex-Prime Minister―now fugitive―Thaksin Shinawatra, and his opponents who are determined not only that the former premier will never wield power in Thailand again, but even that he will not return to the country he once governed.

It is an article of faith that democratic elections are necessary to clear the political air. However, that is only the case when the losing side accepts the legitimacy of the outcome and contents itself with serving as the loyal opposition. Thailand’s recent misfortune is that the pro- and anti-Thaksin forces have not yet reached such an accommodation.

The Bangkok Post has described the political stalemate this way: “In Thailand’s electoral democracy election winners cannot rule; [but] those who rule cannot win elections.”

Whenever the Thai people have been asked choose, they have unambiguously sided with the party of Thaksin or his proxy. That was true in the last election held in December 2007 and won by Thaksin-backed People’s Progress Party (PPP). A government was then formed under Thaksin surrogate Samak Sundaravej.

Opponents―who go by the shorthand name of “yellow shirts”―took to the streets of Bangkok in a massive demonstration, culminating in the occupation of the government house and the capital’s two main international airports.

The courts eventually disqualified enough PPP members of parliament on various charges (the first prime minister because he had once hosted a cooking show on television), so that the government lost its majority in the lower house and was replaced by one led by the Democrat Party. That, plus some horse-trading among minor parties, led to the formation of the current government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

However, the capital was soon thereafter flooded with supporters of the pro-Thaksin government, who by then had earned the nickname “red shirts,” and who occupied the commercial center of Bangkok for better part of two months before police, and allegedly the army, moved in to suppress the movement and arrest its leaders.

Since it is widely assumed that Thaksin had won the loyalty of so many Thais with a bold populist agenda including a rudimentary health care system and development loans to rural areas, the current Abhisit government has been trying to tame its detractors with a similar approach.

The government has undertaken several initiatives aimed directly at Thaksin’s constituency; such as land reform, income-boosting measures, and creating subsidies for food and diesel oil.

Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, speaking recently in Japan, freely admitted that many of these programs have a political objective: “We don’t want the Thaksin folks to have a [political] weapon,” he said, but he also maintained that these were also programs that any government concerned with the people’s welfare should undertake.

And yet, there are still few signs that Thaksin’s popularity has really waned among his key supporters. The Pheu Thai Party, the latest political vehicle for Thaksin, is reportedly leading in most opinion polls. The main political divide between the Thaksin-supporting north and northeast and the Abhisit’s stronghold in the south remains largely unchanged.

Since he was exiled in 2006, Thaksin has been represented in parliament by surrogates. The courts keep disqualifying his party, but loyalists continue to regroup under new names. This time the pro-Thaksin leader and potential prime minister is his 44-year-old sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who has worked in her brother’s business empire, but never before in politics.

To have the Thaksin party headed by an actual member of his family is about as unambiguous as you can get. Indeed, Ms. Shinawatra is happy to be described as a “clone” of her elder brother: “I understand him, how he handles politics. That will be the one thing I’ve cloned from his logical thinking and vision,” she has said.

If the “red shirts” return to power, one might expect more mass demonstrations by the anti-Thaksin forces. Another round of judicial “disqualifications” encompassing Ms. Shinawatra and other leaders of the Pheu Thai Party are entirely conceivable.

On the other hand, if Abhisit is able to form a new government, expect more street demonstrations by the red shirts, but with the new government possibly becoming more aggressive in persecuting those on the red side who are believed to have torched commercial buildings in Bangkok during last spring’s uprising.

But perhaps the most amazing thing about the situation in Thailand is how―despite all of the political upheaval and potential for future chaos―the Thai economy seems to just keep ticking along as if the political disputes were taking place on a different planet.

Todd Crowell is a veteran journalist, writer, and editor, focusing on Asian politics and business.