Thais set to elect carbon copy of the past

Samak Sundaravej meets residents as he visits a market in Ayutthaya, 80 kms north of Bangkok..

Samak Sundaravej meets residents as he visits a market in Ayutthaya, 80 kms north of Bangkok..
Photo: Patrirck de Noirmont

Connie Levett, Ayutthaya, Thailand
December 22, 2007

SAMAK Sundaravej makes his way through the crowded street market in Ayutthaya, the ancient Thai capital, stopping to try the spicy Thai soup, tom yum goong. An old woman yells: “Uncle Samak, you can taste it but you cannot complain.”

The brusque 72-year-old is a familiar figure: a former interior minister, governor of Bangkok and the host of two successful cooking programs on Thai television, with strong royal connections.

Tomorrow, Thais go to the polls and by Monday the TV chef could head the next government of Thailand. Mr Samak, whose policies are a virtual carbon copy of the populist agenda of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, formed the People’s Power Party after Thaksin’s party was dissolved.

A big slab of a man, with a forceful manner, Mr Samak talks at a political rally in Ayutthaya about Thaksin, the charismatic leader deposed in a coup in September 2006.

“People turned against Thaksin because they didn’t get what they wanted from him. They say Thaksin was corrupt, that he was disrespectful to the monarchy, that he wanted to create his own dynasty.

“General Sonthi (Boonyaratglin, who led the coup) wanted the old party (the Democrats) to run the country.”

Since 1932, when the absolute monarchy was abolished and democracy instituted, Thai politics has limped along, with short bursts of democratic rule under unstable coalition governments, punctuated by 18 coups. Politics used to be a club shared between a rich entitled few with little attention paid to the rural poor.

Thaksin changed all that by waking the rural masses up to their rights and power, catering to them through a populist agenda of infrastructure spending, affordable health care and access to capital through designated village funds. The value of his family business interests skyrocketed during his tenure from 2001 to 2006.

After the 2006 coup, Thaksin and 111 members of his former party’s executive were banned from politics for five years, and Thaksin and his family have been aggressively pursued on corruption charges.

“They got rid of Thaksin, exiled him, but they have failed in reconstituting the former pre-Thaksin Thailand. The evidence is unmistakable — the populist genie is out of the bottle,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. “All the bad press and criticism levelled at … Thaksin’s populism is undermined by the universal adoption of populist policies by all the parties.” Democrat Party strategist Kasit Piromya, a former ally of Thaksin, said: “When I was with him at Government House it was about mass control, populism with control.”

After the coup, the military tried to erase Thaksin from the public’s memory. They abolished high-profile assistance programs introduced by him, and where they were forced to maintain initiatives, such as the 30-baht health care scheme, changed their names.

If the military-appointed interim government had governed well, the plan might have succeeded. “The interim government are inept. Thaksin’s government was corrupt but decisive,” Dr Thitinan said. “If the election goes as planned (and the People Power Party wins) it will showcase the failure of the coup.”

The Democrats and People Power are the two major parties, but a number of smaller parties could be crucial in forming government. The make up of the 480-member Parliament will likely be decided in two key areas — Bangkok and the central plains to the north. The Democrats are expected to sweep the south, People Power Party will control the north and north-east and the west is the stronghold of a third party, Chart Thai.

The latest polls suggest the People Power Party will win the greatest number of seats, if not an outright majority. A Bangkok- based Western diplomat said the Democrats were worried they would not do well in Bangkok.

The military has put some mechanisms in place should the People Power Party emerge victorious. The head of the junta, General Sonthi, recently established a Vote Buying Investigative Committee and put himself at its head. “General Sonthi wants to oversee the outcome (of the poll),” said Dr Thitinan. “The best way to keep control is to be the referee — you can harass one side, favour the other side.”

Mr Samak has refused to contemplate another military intervention. “We pay no attention to the (coup leaders). By now we have confidence that no one will do such a thing again,” he said.



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