Thailand is preparing to go to the polls on July 3 in an election that is supposed to mark the restoration of full democracy to the country, one of the liveliest, best-endowed and most promising countries in Asia. But the way the campaign is going, the chances are that Thailand will face another coup or dictatorship before long.

Opinion polls — for what they are worth in a land also renowned for vote-buying and corruption — give the opposition Pheu Thai Party a 47 to 40 percent lead over the Democrats, the main party in the government.

For all the colorful jamboree of election posters and blaring campaign music, it is a measure of the lack of progress that the election is seen, correctly surely, as a continuing contest between the nouveau arriviste elite around ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the older entrenched elites of monarchy, military, bureaucrats and rich Chinese businessmen.

Thaksin himself is not contesting. He is sitting in luxurious exile in Dubai on a passport issued by Montenegro , with a jail sentence if he returns to Thailand. In mercurial interviews he protests that all he wants to do is return and teach, play golf and give guidance to his children in their business endeavors.

However, his protests that it is time for “reconciliation” in Thailand indicate that he still sees himself as a player in the reconciling.

Thaksin never left Thai politics. He is in constant close touch with his key lieutenants and through video links with the masses of his “Red Shirt” supporters who have never forgiven the military for ousting Thaksin in a bloodless coup when he was in the United States in 2006 or for the deaths in last year’s bloody Bangkok street protests.

If anyone doubted Thaksin’s guiding hand, it was shown in the choice of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, to lead the Pheu Thai Party. She is a 43-year-old business executive with no political experience and no record of any political views. She has been derided as a “clone” of Thaksin.

The cruelty is that the description is Thaksin’s own. In an interview with ABC of Australia, he protested that it did not mean that she was his puppet. “She worked for me from the beginning. So I teach her, I train her, the working habit style is nearly exactly like me … Clone means this same culture, the same background, the same ideas, the same attitude, the same thinking.” (Quotes from the ABC transcript.)

It does not say much for the democracy of the Pheu Thai that such a political greenhorn was shoehorned in as leader without debate, election or murmur. The only excuse is that many experienced Thaksin supporters have been disqualified. The more likely explanation is Thaksin’s need for loyalty.

Asked about becoming prime minister again, he replied, “My youngest sister is already there, so no need for me to go back as a prime minister.” But he did not answer when asked if he would never be prime minister again.

Does anyone doubt that if the Pheu Thai won the election Thaksin would be itching to come back, with all his sentences remitted and $1.4 billion of his fortune sequestered by the government returned? Or that the other elites, the royal ultra-loyalists and the military especially, would do their utmost to subvert the wishes of the people to prevent his return to power?

It would be a fascinating struggle, too bad for the used and abused Thai people caught in the middle. Thaksin should not be underestimated. He won elections in 2001 and 2005, the latter by a landslide in spite of subsequent allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In office his strength and his weakness was his ruthless opportunism. He treated Parliament and even his Cabinet as a rubber stamp, was deaf to constructive criticism that might have improved his policies, and sacrificed thousands of lives in crackdowns against drugs and Muslim dissidents in the south.

Thaksin remains a popular figure, not only in his native northeast but also among farmers and poorer people who regard him as the only politician who has tried to improve their lives.

But he is hardly a man of the people. He comes from the Thai-Chinese business elite with good political roots, and cleverly parlayed these connections plus others through his career in the police to build his business empire and to use it as a springboard to politics. His genius was to shrug off his elite background and present himself as a populist politician opposed to the old order from which he had sprung, but he was prepared to manipulate and enlist malleable members of the elite to his side.

By contrast, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva suffers from being seen as a prisoner of the old elites.

No matter how much he protests — correctly — that he got the job through legitimate vote in Parliament and has held it by defeating votes of confidence against him, critics claim that the old guard moved the goal posts by banning Thaksin’s parties plus politicians whom they could not bribe to change sides.

Abhisit’s position has become more uncomfortable because both the yellow-shirted loyalists and the army seem determined to hem him in. Assertion of Thai claims to the 4.6 square km around the Preah Vihear temple in Cambodia and a military-backed campaign to uphold strict lese-majeste laws have left Abhisit looking weak and only in charge of part of the government by military permission.

The military indeed is more royalist than the King Bhumibol, who famously said in 2005, “If the king can do no wrong, it is akin to looking down on him because the king is not being treated as a human being.” With the king ailing, it is a dangerous time to try to shut up all discussions of the role of the monarchy. Perhaps the generals are afraid that their privileges might be called into question.

The efforts of Abhisit and his finance minister Korn Chatikavanij to put the economy on a sounder foundation and to institute reforms that are more widely spread than the largesse that Thaksin handed out are paying dividends, but the prime minister is not reaping the benefit because he is perceived not to be the real ruler.

Meanwhile, Yingluck so far is ahead in the political debate by refusing to debate with Abhisit. She just smiles and recites the platitudinous slogans of her brother, a path that could be equally perilous for her.

Kevin Rafferty was editor in chief of Business Day Thailand

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