Thailand’s Post-Coup Election Promises Little More than a New National Headache

World Politics Review

William Boot | 20 Dec 2007
World Politics Review Exclusive

BANGKOK, Thailand — In the final days before an election that is supposed to herald the return of “democracy” to Thailand, protesters gate-crashed the national assembly in Bangkok.

The protestors were angered by the unelected military-appointed national assembly’s last-minute passage of a slew of new laws before being dissolved — including a dubious and feared Internal Security Bill which would give the military highly questionable powers.

The law, certain to be passed, enshrines the authority of the Internal Security Operations Command, a shadowy parallel military grouping with extensive powers under the prime minister.

“It is unexcusable for the assembly to be hurriedly passing such controversial legislation just a few days before the election of a representative parliament,” said protest coordinator Jon Unphakorn, a former senator and chairman of the Thai nongovernmental organization Coordinating Committee for Development. “The Internal Security Bill, if passed, would give the military a permanent position of political leverage in Thai society.”

Thailand has been in the grip of the military, and its civilian proxies, since the coup in September 2006 that was ostensibly necessary save the country from despotism.
Fifteen months later, half the country’s provinces remain under martial law, although there is no sign of trouble apart from the simmering Muslim insurgency in the deep south.

The man who led the coup, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, has pulled a Pervez Musharraf: He has retired from his long career in the army and made himself deputy prime minister, with responsibility for internal security.

Thaksin’s Legacy

It’s against this background that Thailand goes to the polls on Dec. 23 to decide its first freely elected post-coup government — with the bemusing irony that the most popular party on the stump is the Peoples Power Party.
The PPP is not the left-wing grassroots political entity it sounds like. It’s a newly formed business-orientated group made up of many of the political cronies whose old party was abolished in the coup.

The military moved in to end what was seen by a mainly Bangkok elite as a rampantly corrupt government led by Thaksin Shinawatra — an ethnic Chinese dollar billionaire — and the political movement he invented only five years earlier: the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party.

It was, is and will remain the most popular political entity in Thailand among the disconnected masses of rural poor that constitute a majority of the country’s voters.
Thaksin may be in self-imposed exile in London, safe from charges of corruption awaiting him back home, but his name and influence continue to tower over Thailand. It is widely believed that his wealth is funding the PPP.

But just to make sure the people don’t forget him, Thaksin bought a soccer club in the globally televised English Premiership. Now, instead of Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool, more and more soccer-mad Thais follow the fortunes of Manchester City.
Love him or loathe him, Thaksin was the first Bangkok politician to reach out to the poor, with village loans — mostly squandered — and free health care.

He kept his promises. But along the way he and his cronies were also perceived by the Bangkok middle classes to be fleecing the nation and corrupting virtually every state institution, including the Supreme Court, enshrined in the much-loved 1997 constitution that the coup leaders immediately annulled. (Thailand has had almost as many constitutions as coups since the end of an absolute monarchy in 1932: 16.)

A Dirty Election?

The army and the government have denied that soldiers have been touring pro-Thaksin rural communities in the former leader’s biggest constituency, the dirt-poor northeast, warning them not to vote for the PPP.

Other political parties competing for seats in the new parliament have lodged complaints that the PPP is buying votes. One report said that instead of the old favorite sweetener of cash, now frowned on, candidates are handing out Viagra tablets.

The outgoing government rejected a request by the European Commission to send election monitors to verify fairness on the grounds that Thailand is mature and has no need for that sort of Third World overseeing, thank you.
However, a number of Western embassies in Bangkok have clubbed together to informally dispatch observers in key regions, such as the northeast and the Muslim south.

“ISOC [Internal Security Operations Command] has definitely been intimidating villagers in the northeast not to vote for the PPP,” said a security analyst with a Western embassy in Bangkok, speaking to World Politics Review on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“Ironically, Muslim militants in the south have also been telling villagers there not to vote for the PPP because of the Thaksin era’s hard-line meddling, which probably exacerbated the conflict.

“The insurgents want the Democrats in power because they are more conciliatory. But it is highly unlikely there will be any early solution to that conflict.”
The conflict, which has killed more than 2,500 people since an old insurgency was reignited in 2004 by aggressive Thaksin policies, is over autonomy for three ethnic Malay-dominated southern provinces, which most mainstream Thais reject as tantamount to a mini-state.

Somkiat Tangmano, rector of the Midnight University — a Web-based center of academic opinion and ideas in Thailand, which was blacked out for a long time by the coup leaders — has urged voters to boycott the election in protest of the military manipulation of the constitution that “curtailed political rights and reform prospects.”
The director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, said: “Thailand’s coup-makers and their appointed caretaker government and the post-coup powers-that-be that have backed them have been unable to contain the forces that were unleashed during the Thaksin years.”

The pro-business Thaksin years from 2001 to 2006 rejuvenated the Thai economy after the Asian financial crash of 1997 — which Thailand’s burst bubble triggered — while at the same time massively enriching the prime minister and his cronies.
Corruption is anyway endemic in Thailand, from the illegal street vendor paying a “rent” to the cop on the beat all the way up to the top of the government. But Thaksin’s blatant manipulations were seen by the Bangkok elite as too cheeky, too un-Thai, and in turn the elite manipulated the capital’s middle classes, urging them to take to the streets under the unifying name of the coup.

The rural poor looked on bemused, themselves a little better off due to Thaksin’s populist policies.

A Political Predicament

“Populism has brought with it a political predicament for the Thai people,” said Thitinan, writing in the Bangkok Post newspaper this week. “It has created conditions that set the stage for a fierce struggle between Mr. Thaksin and his opponents, with exploitation and corruption on the one hand, and Bangkok-driven ridicule and denial of the rural masses on the other.”

On all the opinion poll evidence to date, and short of some heavy-handed voter manipulation by the authorities, the pro-Thaksin PPP is set to take the majority of parliamentary seats, and will thus form the new government — if not alone, then with rapidly bought up marginal parties holding a few seats each.

Forty-one parties fielding 4,200 candidates are battling for parliamentary seats.
The PPP is being led by an old political warhorse, Samak Sundaravej, a government minister in the Thaksin era whose main policy idea down the years has been himself.
The countries oldest political group, the Democrat Party, led by a well-meaning but lackluster Oxford-educated Bangkok academic, Abhisit Vejjajiva, will likely be the No. 2 vote-getter.

The Democrats historically have been center-left with liberal ideas, but have recently adopted Thaksin populism.

Depending on the final numbers, it’s just possible the Democrats could put together a coalition government of minority parties. Given the squabbling, compromising nature of Thai politics, however, it would be weak.

The army commander-in-chief has given repeated assurances that there will not be another coup if the PPP wins.

There will be an alcohol ban in place across this booze-loving country for much of the election weekend, supposedly to stop candidates buying votes with free drinks and to prevent alcohol-fueled poll violence.

But most pundits reckon the nation will nevertheless wake up on Dec. 24 with a huge political hangover that will linger well into 2008.

William Boot is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok.



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