Thaksin’s populist legacy hangs over Thai election

ReutersUK

Thu Nov 29, 2007 7:43am GMT

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

PAYAO, Thailand (Reuters) – More than a year after a coup aimed at erasing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s legacy, parties running in next month’s election are scrambling to copy his populist, vote-winning policies.

In key electoral battlegrounds in the north and northeast, people remember the generous farm subsidies, cheap healthcare, low-interest loans for villages and free scholarships that won Thaksin two landslide election victories in five years.

They are also bitter at the generals and the interim government for dismantling or scaling back those populist measures often derided by urban Thais as spoiling the poor, rural masses.

“Thaksin has gone and so has my daughter’s scholarship. I hope the next government will bring it back,” said Valee Padwong, a hospital volunteer in the sleepy northern province of Payao where a lottery that funded scholarships was scrapped.

The post-coup government has embraced a policy of “sufficiency economy”, a theory of moderation and sustainable growth espoused by revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

But the major parties running for the 480-seat parliament, including those backed by the coup makers, are taking a page from the populist handbook that propelled Thaksin’s now banned Thai Rai Rak (Thais Love Thais) party to victory.

Opinion polls suggest the People Power Party, whose senior ranks include many Thaksin allies, will win the most seats, but fall short of a majority due to a new constitution designed to bar the return of strong, one-party government.

The PPP’s firebrand leader, Samak Sundaravej, “has shrewdly turned the election into a verdict on the coup, campaigning on an anti-coup stance on top of the proven populist platform under Thai Rak Thai”, Chulalongkorn University political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote this month.

THAKSIN RETURN?

PPP candidates talk openly about the return of Thaksin from exile in London.

“Please vote for us. We will bring Thaksin back,” Chinnicha Wongsawat told a small rally in Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s home town.

The Democrat Party, which once criticised Thaksin’s policies as irresponsible and was crushed at the polls in 2001 and 2005, has now embraced economic populism.

Thailand’s oldest party, the one most likely to lead a coalition that will exclude the PPP, is offering free education for 12 years, more benefits for retirees and free healthcare, going a step further than Thaksin’s small user fee.

Another party led by a former business tycoon, Prachai Leophairatana, promises to transform Thailand into a “welfare state” with more generous handouts for the poor, elderly and sick, as well as cheap train tickets and mega-projects.

How they plan to pay for the largesse is unclear.

Most have shunned the politically unpopular idea of raising taxes. They are, in fact, promising to cut personal and corporate taxes to stimulate sluggish economic growth.

Others suggest Thailand can afford to take on more public debt, now running at 38 percent of gross domestic product.

“This is a dangerous way of thinking. Once we are hooked on populist spending, we can’t stop. And the amount spent is going to become even greater in the future,” Nation columnist Thanong Khanthong wrote.

But on the campaign trail, it would take a brave politician to lecture voters on the importance of fiscal prudence.

“I will vote for those who have kept their word and delivered what they have promised,” Kwanjai Hwang, a clothes shop owner at an Akha hill-tribe village in Chiang Mai.

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