Thai victor strangely quiet on Thaksin’s return | The Australian

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Peter Alford, Bangkok | December 29, 2007

A WEEK after an apparently clean-cut outcome of the general election to restore the democratic process in Thailand, politics has returned to a familiar swirl of confusion.

It still looks certain that Samak Sundaravej’s People Power Party will be able to form a coalition government next Friday and that the military will stand on the sidelines, for the time being.

But all else seems far less settled than it did on Monday, including when and under what conditions the PPP, which triumphed by carrying Thaksin Shinawatra’s banner, wants the ousted leader to come home.

Mr Samak campaigned on clearing Mr Thaksin’s name of corruption allegations and lifting the five-year ban on political activity by him and 110 other executives of his former Thai Rak Thai party.

Since the election, 72-year-old Mr Samak has not talked of amnesty — the clear sense he was giving beforehand — and has not responded to Mr Thaksin’s eagerness to return to Thailand in February or March.

Mr Samak may not want an early return by Mr Thaksin, 58, to complicate matters between the new civilian Government and the military leaders who overthrew Mr Thaksin last September. But he may also not want the presence of man who still commands the loyalty of at least 10million voters undermining his authority as the new prime minister.

The realisation is settling on people that though the election was carried off relatively cleanly, almost everything in Thai politics is potentially less stable than it was before the events that brought down Mr Thaksin.

The former prime minister — Thailand’s most successful democratic leader, and yet the most divisive and overbearing — has polarised the nation with what Chulalongkorn University political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak calls his “resilient populist platform”.

His policies, aimed at the poor rural majority in Thailand’s northeast and north, provided during Mr Thaksin’s five years an ad hoc form of social welfare and grass-roots development — though inefficient and blatantly directed for political advantage — that previous governments almost completely neglected.

Overwhelmingly, these people identify the policies with the person, so that for the parties contesting Sunday’s election, it was not sufficient just to embrace Mr Thaksin’s rural policies, as most did. Only PPP could campaign as true Thai Rak Thai successors who would redress the wrongs inflicted by the military on the party and Mr Thaksin, and only PPP could claim Mr Thaksin’s “legacy voters”.

This was underlined also by the weak showing of Puea Pandin, another rural-based party containing former TRT members but led by several of Mr Thaksin’s political enemies.

Puea Pandin in the northeast and the Democrats, traditionally strong in Bangkok and the Muslim south, were the best hope of forming an anti-Thaksin coalition government. That strategy failed, though the Democrats did recover almost all their losses to Thai Rak Thai in Bangkok. The Democrats’ traditional urban support had returned en masse during the chaotic year before Mr Thaksin’s overthrow.

But Sunday’s election leaves the nation as divided along the traditional north-south, rural-urban rift as ever and, as Mr Thitinan observes, that can only be resolved by a national consensus on rural development and safety-net welfare.

Further, an old fault line, civilian democracy versus military “guardianship”, has become active again and will not now fall dormant just because the anti-Thaksin military leadership has agreed to return to their barracks.

Thai victor strangely quiet on Thaksin’s return | The Australian

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