Thai election signals return of a new political power

 International Herald Tribune

Chart Thai Party leader Banharn Silpa-Archa made a sign for the number 13, the number his party will be using at the December general election. (Chaiwat Subprasom /Reuters)

By Seth Mydans

Published: December 20, 2007


BANGKOK: As promised, the generals who seized power 15 months ago in a coup are holding an election Sunday to hand Thailand back to a civilian government.

But far from delivering the nation to a stable democracy, the generals have left it divided, unhappy and apprehensive as it returns to the political confrontations that gave rise to the coup.

No matter who wins the election, political analysts here say the country is headed into a period of continuing tension, with neither side willing to concede defeat in what is a deeper, more fundamental struggle over the character of a future Thailand.

At the center of the struggle is a man who is not even here – whose face is banned from political posters – the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, 58, who was ousted by the generals in September 2006, but who remains the most popular and controversial political figure in Thailand.

Polls suggest that a party that promises to bring him back from exile may win the most votes, though possibly not a majority, despite the best efforts of the junta to discredit him, to weaken his allies and to hamper the party’s campaign. The generals who ousted him are widely expected to use their political muscle to keep his supporters from returning to power.

“They’ve martyred him,” said Chris Baker, a British historian of Thailand, and biographer of Thaksin, speaking of the junta, “and by martyring him and his party my guess is they have increased his support by 10 to 15 percent.”

Thaksin’s base of support signals the deep-running political and social shifts that are at the heart of the country’s conflicts – the poor or lower-middle-class mostly rural voters whom he courted with populist policies like low-cost health care, debt forgiveness and a distribution of village funds.

Other parties have caught on and the election campaign is overstuffed with promises to help with everything from education to irrigation, including a package offered by one party called “Urgent Operation Plan Doable in 99 Days.”

The mobilization of this new political constituency has challenged an established order of hierarchy and privilege centered in the bureaucracy, the military, the traditional elite and the monarchy.

The coup, many analysts say, was in large part a response to this challenge as Thaksin co-opted Thai government institutions and consolidated his power as what he liked to call the chief executive of Thailand.

“The rural majority has been awakened and they are not going back to sleep,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. “Thailand is changing. Thailand is undergoing a transformation, and the forces of transformation are on Thaksin’s side.”

The post-coup period, he said, “has shown that the establishment has not been able to adapt to the new era, new times, new demands, new expectations.”

The rule of the junta is widely seen to have been lackluster as the economy has faltered and the generals’ appointed civilian government has been troubled by scandals and policy fumbles.

Ammar Siamwalla, an economist and an opponent of Thaksin, repeated a common witticism: “Two good things came out of the coup. We got rid of Thaksin even if for a year and, two, it shows that the military can’t ever come back into power because it’s been so incompetent.”

The generals have sought to justify their seizure of power by bringing corruption cases against Thaksin and his family, but they have made little headway in the courts.

And far from healing the divisions, as it promised to do, the junta has been preoccupied with fending off a possible resurgence by supporters of Thaksin’s banned party, Thai Rak Thai.

The election is being held in this divisive atmosphere, with martial law still in place in 31 of 76 provinces – most of them in Thaksin’s electoral strongholds in the north and northeast. Under martial law, the military can ban political gatherings, detain people without charge and censor the media.

“We are deeply concerned about the very obvious intentions of the junta,” said Sunai Phasuk, the Thailand representative of Human Rights Watch. “They clearly wanted to stamp out Thai Rak Thai, or whatever it’s called now, from the political landscape and that in itself is a very clear factor that can make the basis of free and fair elections look very bleak.”

Most analysts expect the vote to be followed by tough bargaining to form a coalition government led either by the pro-Thaksin party, now called the People Power Party, or by the Democrat Party, the former opposition party, which has been struggling to capitalize on his setbacks and to win broad popular support.

Two very different candidates are the likeliest prime ministers. They are Abhisit Vejjajiva, 43, the polished, Oxford-educated leader of the Democrats, and Samak Sundaravej, 72, a tough, old-school politician who was once governor of Bangkok and who says his People’s Power Party will clear Thaksin’s name if it is elected.

Another politician of the old school, Banharn Silpa-Archa, 75, has put himself forward as a possible compromise candidate. A political deal-maker, he served as prime minister for 16 months in 1995 and 1996.

To keep Thaksin’s backers from leading the government, analysts say, the generals and their proxies may act to disqualify some elected members for campaign abuses or to pressure smaller parties to join the Democrats in a coalition.

Accusations of irregularities by the pro-Thaksin parties have laid the groundwork, if all else fails, for disbanding the party altogether, analysts say, as a court did last May with Thai Rak Thai. The court also banned 111 party executives, including Thaksin, from politics for five years, excluding them – and even their photographs – from the election campaign.

Whatever form the new government takes, analysts say its rule is likely to be contentious, difficult and possibly short, assuring that the struggle for power will continue.

“Thailand is stuck in an anachronism,” said Thitinan. “We have a neo-feudal hierarchy that is untenable. It’s just incompatible with the 21st century. This contest between this older established order and the newly emerging order is being played out in the twilight of the king’s glorious reign.”

King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 80 years old and ailing and the country’s period of political tension has been accompanied by a national outpouring of adoration for a much-loved monarch.

On the throne for 61 years, the king is a father figure who has given Thais a sense of continuity and stability as politicians, bureaucrats and soldiers fight over the spoils of power. His eventual departure will be a national trauma.

The coup in September 2006 was the 18th since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. Among the anxieties that accompany the election are fears that there could be more coup attempts.

The louder the politicking has grown over the past year and the more uncertain the future, the more posters have appeared proclaiming, “Long Live the King.”

Thai election signals return of a new political power – International Herald Tribune



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