Try the new FT.com

Last updated: March 29, 2006 7:55 pm

Legitimacy elusive in Thailand’s poisoned poll

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments

It is an odd paradox: a damaged leader accused of authoritarianism looks to a general election to restore his credibility and bolster his position, while self-proclaimed defenders of democracy urge a king to step into the political fray and replace a head of government who remains genuinely popular among the majority.

Five weeks ago – when he impetuously dissolved a parliament in which his party held a large majority – Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra was counting on his strong rural support base to deliver a decisive rebuke to Bangkok demonstrators who were challenging his fitness to be prime minister.

Yet his move was met by an opposition boycott that leaves his Thai Rak Thai ("Thais love Thais") party running essentially uncontested in the snap election. Sunday's vote has turned into what many see as a bizarre referendum on Mr Thaksin's five-year tenure – an exercise that few urban Thais believe will bring a decisive end to the political turmoil that is paralysing government activity and threatening economic growth prospects.

For his part, the prime minister has cast the elections as a test of Thai democracy itself. "Stop mob rule," enjoins one newspaper advertisement placed by Thai Rak Thai. "Show the power of the people. On April 2, go to vote!" Another ad rails against opposition parties and the mainly middle-class Bangkok demonstrators. "The real saboteurs of democracy are those who reject elections and don't accept that the sovereign power belongs to the Thai people through the election process," it proclaims. "If people refuse to accept the result of the election, it will be a dangerous sign."

Thai Rak Thai still aims to muster more than the 19m votes it captured in its decisive re-election just a year ago, hoping such a performance would silence public doubts about the prime minister's legitimacy and demoralise protesters. Mr Thaksin has pledged to step down in the – unlikely – event that his party receives fewer than half the votes cast.

But protest leaders and opposition politicians insist no election result will alter their conviction that the biggest threat to Thailand's young, fragile democracy is Mr Thaksin himself.

They accuse the prime minister, a billionaire former telecommunications tycoon and one-time police officer, of treating his earlier electoral mandate as carte blanche to trample on civil liberties, undermine constitutional checks and balances and bend government policies and rules to benefit his family's business. Bangkok's simmering resentment against the prime minister's authoritarian tendencies and his give-aways of public funds to the poor erupted into open rebellion in January after his family's Bt73bn ($1.9bn, £1.1bn) tax-free sale of its 49 per cent stake in Shin Corp, the telecoms company Mr Thaksin founded, to Temasek Holdings, the Singapore government's investment arm.

Opposition parties say Mr Thaksin's hastily called election is not the way to address public concerns about the Shin deal. "Even in democracies there are independent regulators composed of people who know what they are doing and we don’t consider that undemocratic," says Korn Chatikavanij, a former investment banker who is deputy leader of the Democrat party, the largest opposition party.

"An election is an important part of democracy but it is not the be-all and end-all," he goes on. "Many dictatorships around the world – currently and in past history – have [had] elections too. You have to look at the fine print before you decide whether a system is a democracy or not."

The Democrats have urged Mr Thaksin to stand down to make way for a royally appointed interim leader. The People's Alliance for Democracy, the coalition of activist groups, has also appealed to Thailand's revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej to intervene and choose a leader to oversee constitutional reforms ahead of fresh elections. So far, however, the king, a constitutional monarch who is supposed to keep above politics, has given no sign of getting involved.

The unusual crisis reflects Thailand's decades of military rule and memories from 1973 and 1992 of how popular uprisings – followed by royal intervention – drove military rulers from power. With all sides now entrenched in their positions, and fears of harsh retribution against the eventual losers in the showdown, most Thais expect the stand-off – and political uncertainty – to persist well after the votes are counted.

"The issue is: what happens in a democracy when it gets dominated by someone who is plainly not a democrat and who is abusing it?" says Chris Baker, author of a book on Mr Thaksin's business and political career. "This isn't just a Thai problem," he adds, pointing to similar tensions in countries ranging from the Philippines to Italy. "The demonstrators, who are people who have cut their teeth in 1973 and 1992, are still playing from the old script, which is: ’The king moves when the demonstration proves the illegitimacy of the dictator’," Mr Baker says. "But that doesn't fit the current
situation."

Surapong Suebwonglee, the government's spokesman, says: "We should not disturb His Majesty the King . . . We have a more mature democracy, and we think we should try to solve the problem by ourselves."

Mr Thaksin strode into power in 2001, just after Thailand, still recovering from the humiliating 1997 Asian financial crisis, had adopted a reformist constitution that Bangkok's middle classes hoped would clean up the country's notoriously corrupt money politics and prevent elected politicians from acting above the law, as their military predecessors did.

Mr Thaksin built a mass base for his party by promising, then delivering, what surveys showed that long-neglected rural voters most wanted: affordable healthcare, easy credit and debt suspension. It was a dramatic precedent for Thai electoral politics.

"Thaksin was the first one to pay attention to the rural poor and bestow upon them some of the revenues that were accruing to the government through taxes," says Sriyan Pietersz, head of research at the Thai offshoot of JPMorgan, the US investment bank. "People in rural provinces realised that they had the power to affect their lives by having a say in politics. It won't be easy to get that genie back in the
bottle."

Though he built a slick vote-getting machine, Mr Thaksin was accused of weakening – and even deliberately subverting – other democratic institutions. He displayed open contempt for the fledgling independent agencies set up by the new constitution as checks and balances. His government purged the electronic media of critical or dissenting voices and put newspapers under pressure to tone down their criticism.

He was unrepentant when more than 2,200 alleged drug dealers died in suspected extra-judicial killings in a three-month government "war on drugs" in 2003. He endorsed heavy-handed tactics to crush a separatist insurgency in Muslim-majority southern Thailand and displayed little sympathy when 78 unarmed Muslim protesters were crushed to death in army trucks in 2004.

An open admirer of Singapore and Malaysia, the prime minister publicly declared in 2003: "Democracy is not the end to itself but a means to an end. The end should be improving the livelihood of your people."

Michael Montesano, a south-east Asian studies professor at the National University of Singapore, says: "Clearly, Thaksin has no interest in – or commitment too – the consolidation of the parliamentary democratic system . . . If he stays in power over the long term, I think he will be repressive and act on his disdain for democratic niceties and things will get very bad."

With the election imminent, many analysts are predicting a constitutional crisis – or at least a flurry of legal challenges and disputes that will create fresh uncertainty over Mr Thaksin's ability to govern, even if he nominally clings to power. "I don't think that the April 2 election will be the answer," says Kitti Nathisuwan, head of research for Macquarie Securities in Bangkok. "A one-party parliament will be a big joke not only to Thais but to the global community. It is quite clear that Thaksin is actually just muddling through the whole situation."

Low voter turnout, particularly in opposition strongholds, is widely expected to rule out the legal election of the full 500 MPs, which could prevent parliament from convening to choose the new premier. While Thai Rak Thai lawyers are ready to argue that parliament can get under way without a full complement of members, Mr Thaksin's election by an incomplete lower house may be perceived as illegitimate. "The system will be flooded by legal accusations, counter-accusations, constitutional challenges," predicts Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political science professor at the country's Thammasat University.

While the legal battles may rage on for some time after the vote, Mr Thaksin, perhaps in tacit recognition of the sheer awkwardness of a one-party parliament, has already held out something of a olive branch to his rivals, offering to form an interim "national government" once the ballot is over.

Mr Surapong, the government spokesman, says such an administration – which he adds could include cabinet ministers from opposition political parties, independent academics and members of civil society – would oversee a constitutional reform process. That would precede fresh elections, which the prime minister has said he would hold within 15 months. "We will ask for everyone in Thailand to join hands together to move on to develop our country," says Mr Surpong.

But opposition parties have rebuffed an offer they see as a public relations exercise rather than a serious solution to the current impasse. Mr Korn says the Democrats will continue to monitor the government's performance even without holding seats in parliament.

In the meantime, many Thais expect Mr Thaksin, notorious for his dislike of civil disobedience, to crack down hard on protesters if they persist with their demonstrations after the vote. His ministers are already issuing warnings to that effect, threatening to arrest leaders of the protests. A crackdown would have unpredictable ramifications.

Some analysts believe Mr Thaksin may take a short "strategic break" from politics after the vote, choosing a trusted deputy to lead the government for the coming year. That would allow time for tensions in Bangkok to cool before he returned to contest a future poll.

The prime minister's next move could ultimately depend not only on the outcome of the vote but on the attitudes of powerful Thai business elites, who have remained publicly reticent about the political crisis but are increasingly anxious about the toll it might take on their fortunes. If the election seems neither to deliver a decisive verdict nor to restore calm, business may urge Mr Thaksin to stand down for a while.

"The reason why he may be ousted in the end is not ethics at all," says Prof Chaiwat. "After a while, Thai society may look around and say, ’it is you who have caused all of this trouble’. Fingers will shift and point to the person who is just sitting, blocking
everything.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.

  • Share
  • Print
  • Clip
  • Gift Article
  • Comments
SHARE THIS QUOTE