SINGAPORE — One year after he was re-elected in a landslide, Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been forced to dissolve the National Assembly and call a snap election. Although his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party commands a 75 percent majority in the assembly, Thaksin is embattled.
He remains immensely popular with rural voters and the urban poor, who comprise more than 60 percent of Thailand’s electorate, but he has been battling a fervent Bangkok-based insurrection against his rule by the intelligentsia and middle classes.
They accuse Thaksin, Thailand’s wealthiest businessman, of corruption and treason for the tax-free sale of his family-owned Shin Corporation to the Singapore government’s Temasek Holdings for $1.9 billion. Thaksin’s rapid reversal of political fortune attests to the limits of the ballot box, as well as to democratic shortcomings that now beset a host of developing countries, including regional neighbors such as the Philippines.
Until recently, Thaksin appeared to be as unassailable at home as he was bold and credible abroad. Exploiting Thailand’s deep urban-rural divide, Thaksin bulldozed his way to power in 2001 on a populist platform. He stirred up national pride and promised rural Thais that their country would rise to greatness following the devastating 1997 economic crisis.
A raft of populist policies underpinned his first four-year government, from rural debt suspension and cheap universal health care to handing out $25,000 to each of 77,000 villages for entrepreneurial startup funds. Reminiscent of development strategies prevalent in East Asia, Thaksin picked strategic niche industries to propel Thailand’s economic expansion, focusing on automobiles, fashion, food, health care and tourism.
In foreign affairs, Thaksin carved out his own space on the international stage with ambitious regional cooperation schemes anchored around the 25-member Asia Cooperation Dialogue (ACD), the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation (ACMECS) and a clutch of bilateral free-trade agreements with the major powers, including the United States, China, Japan, India and Australia.
The ACD was designed to make Thailand the political center of gravity in Southeast Asia; ACMECS was to make it the region’s linchpin of economic development; and the bilateral agreements would cement relations with the biggest players in the region. At his zenith, many saw Thaksin as a worthy successor to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, buoyed by authoritarian rule at home and assertive leadership abroad.
Voters overwhelmingly returned Thaksin to office in February 2005. But his personal popularity then plummeted, owing to the spate of separatist violence in the Muslim-dominated south and the scourge of corruption. Sins overlooked during his first term — from harassment of the media and coercion of civil-society groups to extrajudicial killings in an anti-drug campaign and conflicts of interest that benefited his Shinawatra telecommunications empire — soon caught up with him.
The shady sale of Shin Corporation in February galvanized long-simmering discontents. The deal was viewed as the epitome of Thaksin’s sophisticated corruption and a betrayal of his proclaimed nationalism, thus exhausting his moral authority and political legitimacy. The company’s value quadrupled during Thaksin’s reign, with assets such as satellites, a mobile-phone service, and an airline having originated from state concessions that were conditioned on majority Thai ownership. For Thaksin’s opponents, the sale of these assets to a foreign company owned by a foreign government amounted to putting Thailand’s economic sovereignty on the block.
Thaksin’s days appear numbered, for Thailand seems poised to eject a popularly elected prime minister. The number of street protesters has since swelled from five digits to six. His predicament illustrates the common dictum in the politics of developing countries where rural electorates elect governments but urban elites get to throw them out.
Indeed, the anti-Thaksin coalition will settle for no less than his ouster from office, permanent banishment from Thai politics, and possibly exile. But the opposition has decided to boycott the snap election, which the TRT would likely win again by a large margin, because Thaksin has captured and manipulated the institutions established by the constitution to safeguard against graft and uphold separation of powers within the state.
Thai politics has thus reached an impasse. Only intervention by King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is widely revered, seems capable of saving the day. In a fiercely contested battle between Thaksin and his opponents, Bhumibol is the fundamental difference between Thailand and the Philippines, where “people power” revolts regularly undermine and sometimes overthrow presidents. The king’s intervention would put an unconditional stop to the street confrontations.
But the Thai people cannot afford to look to their aging and ailing king every time they have a problem. Moreover, a royal intervention would risk returning Thailand to square one, seeking to rewrite its constitution to remedy the shortfalls of its democratic culture.
What Thai democracy needs in order to mature is not a political safety net, but a vigilant citizenry to ensure disciplined enforcement of the constitution’s provisions and institutions, so that they can no longer be hijacked by the likes of a Thaksin.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.