By GRANT PECK
BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) — It could be the cash, or it could be charisma, but one thing is clear: As Thailand votes Sunday, politics remains dominated by Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist billionaire ousted as prime minister by a military coup 15 months ago.
Thaksin, 58, commands the political stage despite living in exile, barred from office, his party disbanded and a slew of corruption-related charges pending against him.
“The only real issue at the election will be whether or not to support ex-Prime Minister Thaksin,” pro-democracy activist Giles Ji Ungpakorn, an associate professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, wrote in an analysis circulated by e-mail.
Opinion polls predict that the People’s Power Party, where Thaksin loyalists have regrouped with his endorsement, will win more than 200 seats, though less than the majority that Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party held in the 480-seat legislature before the coup.
It would be a “disaster” for the military, said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist. He expects the generals to pressure other parties to back the Democrat Party, Thaksin’s main opponent, because “They cannot allow the PPP to be the government that undoes their coup.”
The unease can be measured by the rumors swirling around the Thai capital: that the People’s Power Party will be disqualified, that the elections will be postponed or that the army will stage another coup if Thaksin’s supporters prevail.
Another scenario has Thaksin returning from exile if the new party does well. Thaksin was abroad when the military overthrew him, and it warned him to stay away. Then the corruption charges piled up, and he said he wouldn’t return until democratic government was restored. Now he could be hoping the new party will be strong enough to shield him from prosecution.
But if it cannot secure a majority, the most likely outcome of the election will be a fractious coalition, hard-pressed to implement any significant policies, much less tackle the country’s most pressing crisis, a Muslim insurgency in the far south that has taken 2,600 lives since early 2004.
The interim government installed by the army has made little headway in restoring peace, and the lack of campaign debate on the issue suggests that politicians are happy to leave the volatile matter in the military’s hands.
The army unseated Thaksin with relative ease in September 2006 while he was traveling abroad, but it has had little success denting his popularity with Thailand’s rural majority.
Thaksin wooed the long neglected countryside with generous assistance programs, the first prime minister to do so.
During election time, his organizers, like those of other parties, also practiced traditional vote-buying, but it was his rural welfare policies that made Thaksin so popular that he began to marginalize the country’s traditional power holders: politicians, bureaucrats, big business and even the monarchy.
In response, he was pushed aside and the interim government wrote and won public approval for a new constitution that weakens the political parties.
“We will have democracy under the guardianship, under the custody of the ruling elite who have taken power after the coup,” said Thitinan. “We are going to see a weak coalition government emerge.”
Thaksin, who used a fortune earned from telecommunications to found the Thai Rak Thai Party, swept to power in 2001, and was re-elected in 2005 by a landslide in 2005, the first to win an outright majority since Thailand instituted a constitutional democracy in 1932.
Despite being disbanded by the courts, it still has a large network in the rural northeast, a Thaksin stronghold. Their party canvassers, said to be well-funded, are working to turn out a pro-Thaksin vote on Sunday.
“People like his populist policies but what they like most is his money,” said Somkiat Phonpai, an environmental activist in Ubon Ratchathani province.
The economic wisdom of those populist policies, including universal heath care and generous funds for village development, is hotly debated, but they empowered rural voters, for the first time planting the message that their vote directly affects their lives.
“I heard that if we vote for the People’s Power Party, Thaksin will come back. I want Thaksin to come back because he did a lot of good things for the country,” said 48-year-old La-aet Dansuk, who with her neighbors in Pen district in the northeastern province of Udon Thani makes shawls using natural dyes.
She recalls how her profits were boosted by a Thaksin-initiated project that brought wholesalers from Japan and Australia to her village. Now, she must travel almost 300 miles to Bangkok at her own expense to sell her goods, or deal with Thai middlemen who try to drive the price down. Sales have declined, she added.
Thaksin was an “agent of transformation,” said Thitinan, though he’s no admirer of the deposed leader. His party “awakened the silent majority in the countryside, and Thailand will never be the same.”
But Thaksin’s authoritarian style alienated middle class urban voters. After he became enmeshed in financial scandals, they took to the streets in early 2006, demanding he step down. With the political system at an impasse, the army removed Thaksin in the name of saving democracy.
Now, living in London, he is trying to turn the tables. In a a video distributed on CDs to Thai voters, Thaksin says, “We would like to call for power from the people that will allow us to bring back prosperity, happiness and democracy to the country.”
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