Generals’ election

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By Amy Kazmin

Published: December 19 2007 02:00 | Last updated: December 19 2007 02:00

When the Thai army seized power last year in its 11th successful coup d’état since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, the royalist military leaders maintained they were suspending Thailand’s democracy in order to save it.

General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, then army chief and head of the self-appointed “Council For Democratic Reform Under Constitutional Monarchy”, said the military had driven out Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister because the billionaire had deformed and subverted the democratic process. Even as Gen Sonthi abrogated a constitution once hailed as a foundation for cleaning up corrupt politics and boosting transparency, he insisted the army had no intention to retain power and would “return power to the people, under the constitutional monarchy, as soon as possible”.

On Sunday, Thais go to the polls in what would appear to fulfil that pledge. But rather than restoring a vibrant, healthy democracy, analysts say the military intervention – and its year-long project to turn back the clock and restore the previously waning influence of unelected elites – is leaving behind a terrible legacy.

Far from vanquished, the exiled Mr Thaksin remains a potent political force whose loyalists – under the new banner of the People’s Power party – are widely expected to emerge as the largest party in parliament. That is despite widespread perceptions that the royalist military has been working behind the scenes to prevent, or at least limit, a PPP victory.

The prospect of Mr Thaksin’s allies taking power – and paving the way for his return to Thailand – has raised intense speculation over whether the military will respect the voters’ mandate or meddle further to install an administration sympathetic to the coup-makers. “They accused Thaksin of manipulating the electoral process and abusing his mandate to put in strongman rule, but now they are doing the same thing,” says Sunai Phasuk, of the US-based Human Rights Watch. “Clearly they have an agenda not to allow the PPP to come into power. It’s obvious – written on the wall. The question is how that manoeuvring takes place and how the voters who supported the PPP will react to that. It’s going to be nasty.”

Whoever does take power is likely to have a tough time governing the bitterly divided country. Indeed, most Thais predict more of the political rivalry and turmoil – the jockeying between Mr Thaksin and his enemies – that has paralysed policymaking and weighed on the economy for the last two years. “The folly of the coup is exposed – and very clearly exposed,” says Chris Baker, the author of several books on Thai politics and the economy. “This country has just marked time for a year and nothing has changed in the political disposition. The reality of the support for Thaksin and what he stood for is still there. By martyrdom, it has been burnished.”

Adding to the malaise, the political battles will play out within the framework of a new military-sponsored constitution deliberately designed to prevent any elected leader from ever being as powerful as Mr Thaksin, whose own highly personalised style of leadership was seen as threatening the preeminence of the near-deified monarchy. While the 1997 constitution abrogated by the military was crafted to enhance government stability, the new charter, pushed through in a one-sided referendum in August, weakens the executive and strengthens the hand of the opposition while enhancing the role of bureaucrats, judges and the military.

All in all, analysts see a recipe for a return to the weak, frequently changing coalition governments and chronic political crises that plagued Thailand in the 1980s and 1990s. It bodes poorly for the prospects of effective governance at a time when Thailand needs to revive its sluggish economy, which has been one of the region’s worst performers this year and is struggling to compete for investment, even from domestic companies, against dynamic new rivals including Vietnam.

“This basically takes you back to the situation of the past, where you have revolving-door governments but it doesn’t matter because the bureaucracy keeps things on track,” says Kevin Hewison, a Thai specialist at the University of North Carolina. “I don’t see this election solving anything. It’s just the start of a new round of negotiations between people who want to be enfranchised and those who don’t want them to be.”

While the military argued that Mr Thaksin’s government was riddled with corruption, thus rendering him morally unfit to rule, Mr Hewison predicts the new military-shaped order is likely to foster even greater graft, with politicians bought off to secure their loyalty to fragile coalitions. With more frequent elections, they would have greater incentives to generate income to finance their campaigns. “These people came in to throw out a corrupt government and they are re-implementing a political system which encourages further corruption,” he says. “Weak coalition party politics is a recipe for corruption in Thailand and for more vote-buying.”

When the army sent tanks rolling into Bangkok’s leafy government district last year, Thailand was heading towards an election that Mr Thaksin was widely expected to win, thanks to his unwavering support among rural and working-class voters. But with Bangkok’s elites and middle class up in arms at the $1.9bn (£940m, €1.3bn) tax-free sale by Mr Thaksin’s family of its telecommunications empire, the army perhaps thought it would be easy to discredit him by prosecuting him and others in his government for alleged malfeasance.

That has not happened, despite the establishment of a high-powered investigative committee dedicated to probing his alleged wrongdoings. Investigators have frozen most of the funds the Shinawatra family earned from selling Shin Corp. But in the 15 months since the coup, prosecutors have filed just a single court case against Mr Thaksin, charging him with abuse of power for allowing his wife to bid on land auctioned by the central bank. Many Thais see any such breach as a technicality and hardly sufficient justification for his ousting. The case has been suspended.

Along with corruption, Mr Thaksin’s alleged disrespect for Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej was another reason cited by the military for driving the prime minister from power. But while police recommended Mr Thaksin should be charged with three counts of lèse-majesté – a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison – prosecutors opted not to pursue the charges. That came amid concern about potential repercussions for the palace, which was being accused by some coup critics of being the real force behind the military’s intervention.

The military-installed government has also been unenthusiastic about pursuing Mr Thaksin’s alleged human rights violations in southern Thailand and during his bloody 2003 “war on drugs”, when 2,500 people died in suspected extra-judicial killings in three months. It was only this August that the interim administration established an investigative panel to probe the drug war killings. The reluctance is thought to stem from concerns about incriminating top police and other security forces. The panel has reportedly found that 1,400 of the drug war victims had no links to drugs, but it is unclear whether prosecutions will follow.

Seemingly unable or unwilling to nail Mr Thaksin through the judicial system, the military has turned its attention to the election to try to ensure what it sees as a favourable result. Mr Thaksin and 110 other senior members of his defunct Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party are barred from contesting it, as part of the May decision by a military-installed tribunal to dissolve Thai Rak Thai for electoral misconduct. But nearly 200 of its former MPs still eligible to compete have rallied around the banner of the PPP, which has pledged to bring Mr Thaksin back and grant amnesty to him and the banned 110.

Although he has insisted he has no interest in returning to political life, the former telecoms mogul has been monitoring the campaign from Hong Kong and is actively promoting the PPP. Analysts say he needs political leverage to reclaim the money held in limbo by the government. The PPP’s main electoral rival is the Democrats party, which led the parliamentary opposition to Mr Thaksin but is focusing its current campaign on how it would make life easier for ordinary people.

Gen Sonthi has made little pretext at neutrality. In one of his last acts as army chief before he reached mandatory retirement age in October, the 60-year-old urged army security units to discourage people from supporting the PPP to prevent this “nominee of the old power” from winning. The general, who was then installed as a deputy prime minister, heads a committee to prevent vote-buying, through which he is actively campaigning for Thais to vote for “good people loyal to the king” – seen as a veiled admonition not to vote for the PPP.

“He sees this election as a fight between him and his people and Thaksin and his people,” Mr Baker says of Gen Sonthi. “He is not a referee – he is a player.”

Ordinary Thais complain that they are feeling the pressure. “If we like the PPP, we cannot show ourselves obviously,” says a schoolteacher in a village in north-eastern Nakorn Ratchasima province. “Villagers are very worried that that government officials or army are spying in the village to try to find out who are the PPP supporters.”

Questions are also being raised about the neutrality of the election commission. When the PPP protested at the military’s lack of neutrality in the election, the commission dismissed the complaint, saying the military order to thwart the PPP was just a plan that was never implemented. But the PPP alleges harassment, particularly in rural areas, where it says military checkpoints are deterring attendance at its campaign rallies.

The election commission is focusing its attention on a video of Mr Thaksin that has been circulating in rural areas, in which the former leader urges Thais to vote for the PPP to pave the way for his return. Many analysts believe the commission may use the video as a pretext to dissolve the PPP, or disqualify many of its winning candidates, after the election should such a move be necessary to bar it from taking power.

Amid the allegations of skulduggery, the campaign itself has been relatively muted, partly due to curbs imposed in the name of taking money out of politics. Advertisements on television, radio and even billboards have been restricted. But the aftermath of the vote is expected to be tumultuous, especially if the PPP, as some predict, emerges as the largest party by a wide margin. “The risk is that the army [leaders] will be clumsy in their attempt to achieve the results that they want,” says Mr Baker.

Yet ultimately, the military may not be able to stop the PPP. Mr Sunai, of Human Rights Watch, says so many bureaucrats believe in Mr Thaksin’s inevitable return that they are reluctant to ally themselves too closely with the military or its plans. That leaves little that is certain about the post-election outcome, except one thing: “This election will not mark a return to stability or normalcy,” he says.

Still, amid the anxiety, Pasuk Pongpaichit, a Chulalongkorn University economist, says she sees at least one cause for hope – that this may be Thailand’s last military coup. “We will be in for a rough ride . . and I will not discount the possibility of some violence,” she says. “But the election should drive home, to some of the people who have resisted accepting this, that Thai politics has changed. This is about popular democracy. I hope the last year will have shown that a coup government cannot govern Thailand.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007

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