The thunderous results of Thailand’s general election July 3 will seem familiar to anyone attuned to the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa.

Entrenched incumbent regimes everywhere are under severe stress from advances in information technology, shifts in demographics, rising expectations, and the obsolescence of Cold War exigencies. In the absence of a willingness and ability to use violent repression, regime survival can be achieved only through concessions, accommodation and periodic reinvention.

With 47 million voters and turnout at 75 percent, Thailand’s latest election results pose a decisive challenge to the country’s long-established regime.

The Pheu Thai party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of exiled fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, secured a resounding triumph, winning 265 seats in the 500-member assembly, while the ruling Democrat Party mustered just 159.

The return to power of Pheu Thai is extraordinary — and not only because Yingluck will be Thailand’s first female prime minister. The establishment-aligned courts dissolved the party’s two previous governments, and banned scores of its leading politicians from office for five years. Pheu Thai’s victory thus suggests that a previously marginalized electorate has been permanently awakened. A similar majority of the Thai electorate voted for Thaksin’s parties and their pro-poor populist platforms in January 2001, February 2005, April 2006 and December 2007, defying a military coup, a coup-induced constitution, judicial interventions and army repression.

In the second half of the 20th century, Thai elections seemed to alternate with military coups. Voters were bought and sold like commodities. After elections, voters hardly ever saw or heard from their MPs, who typically went on to engage in corruption in Bangkok — eventually losing legitimacy and paving the way for military coups. A new constitution and elections ensued — completing a vicious cycle that reflected Cold War imperatives.

The pillars of the Thai state — nation, religion and the king — struck a unifying, collective chord, and the resulting stability enabled economic development. While growth was so concentrated that popular resentment simmered, communism was kept at bay. Challenges to the established order, anchored by the military-monarchy-bureaucracy triumvirate, were put down.

Thai schoolchildren sang martial songs each morning, and Thais’ place in the rigidly elitist pecking order was reinforced by socialization and indoctrination in classrooms and living rooms, where only state-controlled media could enter.

The rise of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party in 2001 changed all that. The party pursued a scientific approach to elections, relied on expensive polling by foreign experts, and offered a clear agenda and strong leadership. It was the first post-Cold War party to capture Thais’ imagination. The voices of neglected swaths of the electorate, particularly in the rural north and northeast of the country, began to count. A bond between party and voters — a bond based on policy — took root.

Political leaders who dissented from the status quo could no longer easily be jailed on communism-related charges. The advent of the Internet had made it harder for the authorities to shape Thai minds, as media sources multiplied and the resulting diffusion of information undermined the effectiveness of state propaganda. New international norms had come to the fore: external powers that previously turned a blind eye to coups, military dictatorships, and repression now rallied around democracy and human rights.

Thailand’s demographics also changed. The Cold War curriculum of induced unity and stability has no relevance for today’s schoolchildren. Most university students today were born after the Cold War ended.

These factors fostered a new political environment, and Thaksin, who was a telecommunications tycoon at the time, was well positioned to seize the opportunity. He overhauled the bureaucracy, delivered on his promises to the poor, mapped out an industrial strategy and re-designed an overstretched foreign policy agenda, among other innovative measures.

Thaksin’s rule had a dark underside: corruption, legislated conflicts of interest, cronyism, human rights violations and abuse of power, among other evidence of misrule. The opportunities, hopes and dreams delivered to the downtrodden and his vision for Thailand’s future were mixed with his own venality. His gravest “sin” was to have changed the way Thais think. Some see this change as Thailand’s deliverance into the 21st century.

Thaksin’s adversaries in Thailand’s entrenched regime were unwilling to accede to his policy innovations. For them, doing so would be tantamount to admitting that most people in this hospitable, well-endowed kingdom had been kept poor by design all along.

Thaksin has sought to portray the recent election results as being all about him. But he is best viewed as a self-serving, unwitting agent of political modernization. It is these 21st-century dynamics with which the Thai establishment must come to terms if the country is to move forward.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University. © 2011 Project Syndicate

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.