Thaksin Shinawatra, the leader ousted by coup, set to return by popular acclaim

Times Online

From The Times

December 22, 2007

Thaksin Shinawatra, the leader ousted by coup, set to return by popular acclaim

Ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra

Richard Lloyd Parry in Bangkok

It would be hard to imagine a more humiliating series of knockout punches than those landed in the face of Thaksin Shinawatra.

First he was deposed as Thailand’s Prime Minister in a military coup. Then his political party was banned by the incoming junta, and Mr Thaksin and his wife were charged with corruption. Much of his $1.9 billion (£950 million) fortune was frozen as Mr Thaksin watched from exile in Britain, where he bankrolls Manchester City football club, and Hong Kong.

And yet Thailand’s most popular, and most hated, leader is on the verge of an astonishing comeback.

Tomorrow Thais vote in a general election that will mark the official end of 15 months of military rule and the restoration of parliamentary democracy. But rather than focusing on the country’s struggling economy or the continuing Islamic insurgency in the south, this is an election about one question: when will Mr Thaksin return to Thailand? “They can make criminal charges against Thaksin, and they can use the law to stop him taking part in this election,” says Chalerm Yubamrung, one of his senior supporters. “But they cannot stop the people’s feelings of love for him.”

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Before taking their leave the coup leaders have done all they can to foil Mr Thaksin. They have thrown their weight behind his strongest opponent, the Democrat Party; they have banned his own party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais), and barred Mr Thaksin and 110 of his cohorts from politics. But despite more than a year in government they have failed to dent his most powerful asset — his popularity among ordinary Thais.

He earned this, and became Thailand’s longest-serving Prime Minister, by his appeal to a large, but neglected, segment of Thai society — the rural poor. During two terms in office his Government provided cheap loans for farmers, affordable healthcare programmes and pursued a bloody campaign of extrajudicial executions of alleged drug dealers — winning him the love of Thais who had never had an advocate in national politics.

After two election victories middle-class opponents began massive rallies against him in the capital, Bangkok. Last year, while he was in New York, the generals forced him from power.

Their failure to discredit Mr Thaksin is evident in the election campaign, which dramatises the gaping divisions in Thai society. On one side is the Democrat Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva — the embodiment of the middle and upper-class political elite who find Mr Thaksin’s pragmatic populism hard to stomach.

Opposing him is the leader of the People’s Power Party (PPP), Samak Sundaravej, backed by working-class city dwellers and poor farmers. He makes little effort to disguise the fact that the PPP is a clone of Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai.

It occupies the same headquarters, its logo is almost identical, and its principal policy is to grant amnesty to the former Prime Minister and repatriate him as soon as possible.

The contest between the parties has been heated and controversial. Opponents accuse the PPP of using money and favours to buy support — one candidate was alleged to have handed out Viagra to elderly male voters. But the outgoing military government has also been shamed by the leaking of a memo outlining plans to harass and discredit the PPP.

The Democrats have recast their policy platform in terms that match those of the PPP. But they have little prospect of defeating it. The best they can hope for is a hung parliament in which they will be able to form a coalition — a last line of defence against the seemingly unstoppable Mr Thaksin.

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