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Thailand's Election

For the fourth time since 2001, the Thai electorate has handed victory to Pheu Thai, the party associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was the first to recognise the social pressures generated by Thailand's breakneck transition from a low-income to a middle-income economy over the past generation. For the past five years, the battleground of Thailand's political conflict has been the streets. In this melee, the composition and weight of each side has been hard to gauge. The poll result gives a clear reading; the election also shifts the conflict back into the formal institutions of representative democracy.

COMMENTARY

Thailand’s Election

Pasuk Phongpaichit, Chris Baker

established politicians who stood for other parties were wiped out. One party which campaigned using the methods that won Thai elections in the past – vote-brokers, handing out money, influence of local of-

For the fourth time since 2001, the Thai electorate has handed victory to Pheu Thai, the party associated with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was the first to recognise the social pressures generated by Thailand’s breakneck transition from a low-income to a middleincome economy over the past generation. For the past five years, the battleground of Thailand’s political conflict has been the streets. In this melee, the composition and weight of each side has been hard to gauge. The poll result gives a clear reading; the election also shifts the conflict back into the formal institutions of representative democracy.

T
he election in Thailand on 3 July 2011 will not end fierce internal conflict in the country, but move it on to another stage.

At the poll, the Pheu Thai (For Thais) Party won a convincing victory, taking 265 of the 500 seats (Table 1). The Democrat Party that headed the outgoing coalition trailed with 159. On the party list (a national vote by party), Pheu Thai garnered 15.7 million votes, six million more than the Democrats, and 3.4 million more than the party had won at the previous poll in 2007. On the constituency vote, Pheu Thai swept the seats in its heartlands in the north-east and upper north with massive majorities, and also made significant inroads into the central region. But for many narrow defeats, especially in several seats in Bangkok, the victory could have been even more convincing.

Within hours of the result, the party had corralled smaller parties into a proposed coalition expected to command 300 seats. The Election Commission could still invalidate some results on grounds of malpractice, and the Democrats have launched a suit to have the Pheu Thai Party dissolved and the result overthrown. But the scale of popular support displayed by the poll should make opponents realise that tampering with the result could backfire badly.

This is the fourth time since 2001 that the Thai electorate has handed victory to the party associated with Thaksin Shinawatra. That consistency speaks volumes. Even more than at the earlier polls, electors voted by party rather than by assessing their individual local candidates. Across swathes of the country, voters in adjacent constituencies picked one of the two major parties by a large margin. Many

Table 1: Elections Results – Thai Polls

ficials – was resoundingly thrashed. Mass politics now prevails. And the rivalry between parties reflects the sharp division of class and ideology that has rocked the country over the past five years.

At the centre of this division is Thaksin Shinawatra, the mobile-phone zillionaire who became prime minister in 2001, was ousted by coup in 2006, and now lives in exile in Dubai to avoid a two-year sentence for abuse of power. For his supporters, Thaksin is a great leader capable of challenging the country’s torpid old guard, boosting the economy, and delivering more public goods to the mass. For his enemies, he is a corrupt and dishonest businessman, an anti-monarchist, and a dangerous populist who will fleece the middle class and bankrupt the economy. But behind these conflicting views of Thaksin as a person, there are bigger social conflicts generated by Thailand’s breakneck transition from a low-income to a middle-income economy over the past generation.

Aspirations and Resentments

In the last quarter of the 20th century, the average real per capita income in Thailand multiplied three times – from around $1,000+ to $3,000+ at current values. The great mass of people acquired new assets, new aspirations, and a broader view of the world. Many moved from village to city. Even more travelled temporarily as migrant labour to Bangkok or overseas. Yet more could travel in the mind with television, which spread in the 1980s, and the net in the past decade.

Over this boom, income and wealth also became more unequally distributed. In the league tables of inequality, Thailand sits below most Asian countries and just above those of Latin America. As Thai society has become more mobile, more

Bangkok Centre North North-east South Total Constituency Party List Total
Pheu Thai 10 45 45 104 0 204 61 265
Pasuk Phongpaichit (chrispasuk@gmail.com) is Democrat 23 26 12 4 50 115 44 159
at the Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and Bhumjai Thai 0 13 2 13 1 29 5 34
Chris Baker is an independent writer who lives Others (7 parties) 0 18 2 5 2 27 15 42
in Bangkok. Total 33 102 61 126 53 375 125 500
30 july 16, 2011 vol xlvi no 29 Economic & Political Weekly
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COMMENTARY

people personally witness and experience inequality and injustice. Economic inequality does not automatically breed political resentment, but it often underlies political and social distortions that do. The rich use money to gain preferential access to power and others grow increasingly resentful as their own rising aspirations are blocked. The rich tend to look prices, water, forests, and a host of other single issues. Since the millennium, these resentments have poured into electoral politics. Thaksin initially drifted into politics to promote his business interests, and had no real interest in social issues. However, he was the first major politician who recognised the force of this resentment bubbling up from below. In the early 2000s,

Democrat Pheu Thai Other Greater Bangkok Unofficial returns of voting on 3 July 2011. (C) www.MangoMap.com

down on those poorer than them as stupid and uneducated, and the latter increasingly find this demeaning.

These resentments have fed gradually into politics over the past two decades. In the 1990s, protest movements and demonstrations agitated over land rights, agricultural he transformed himself into a mass leader by delivering new policies (universal healthcare, micro credit and agricultural price support), deftly using mass media to link to a mass base, and setting himself up as the enemy to the old political guard. He was rewarded with rock-star style popularity.

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july 16, 2011 vol xlvi no 29

Thaksin became a symbolic leader for all those who sensed that Thailand’s massive inequalities of power, wealth, income, status, and respect are unjust and need to be attacked. These resentments are more widespread among the lower ranks of society, especially among those who have become more upwardly mobile. They are more widespread in the provinces than in the capital. They are fiercest in the northeast and upper north, territories which were annexed by Bangkok in the 19th century and still nurse some resentment.

The emergence of this new political force sparked a strong reaction from the old power network and the urban middle class.

Never before had the old guard faced such a mass political movement. As Thailand was not formally colonised, there had never been a mass nationalist uprising. The communist insurgency was contained with US funds and technology. An oligarchy or power elite had gradually evolved by co-opting new centres of influence. The old feudal nobility was transformed into a new bureaucracy and standing army which ran the country for over half a century. Parliament, which became important from the 1970s onwards, principally served as a means to co-opt a new business elite into a network whose key nodes are the palace, the senior bureaucracy, and the military high command.

Conservative Backlash

This network did not initially see Thaksin as a threat, just another rich businessman who would boost the economy to their benefit. They took fright after Thaksin won a second landslide electoral victory in 2005, promised to rule for 20 years like a Mahathir Mohammed or Lee Kuan Yew, and became openly disdainful of the old guard itself. But getting rid of Thaksin proved much more difficult than they expected because he represented a social change of historic proportions.

Soon after the 2005 poll, Thaksin was hounded by street demonstrations that dressed in yellow, a colour associated with the king, and claimed Thaksin was a threat to the monarchy. Members of the king’s Privy Council criticised Thaksin’s policies and made pointed remarks about corrupt politicians. In September 2006, the army removed Thaksin by coup. The

COMMENTARY

courts then pursued him on grounds of corruption, dissolved his political party, banned 111 of his supporters from politics for five years, and drove him into exile. A year after the coup, the generals tried to manipulate a return to parliamentary rule by using public funds to influence an election, but the electorate defiantly returned a pro-Thaksin victory. The Yellow Shirts then returned to the streets. The courts threw out two more pro-Thaksin cabinets, again dissolved the party, and banned a further 109 MPs. In late 2008, the army helped to concoct a Democrat-led coalition government without the need for another election. But critics immediately claimed the government was illegitimate, and demanded a prompt election.

The old methods of coup and conviction had successfully dispersed political threats in the past. The failure this time was a profound shock. As it was patently clear that the electorate would still support Thaksin at any new election, conservatives began to debate moving wholly or partially away from electoral democracy. Academics wrote treatises advocating increased power for the monarchy and judiciary. The post-coup government went some way down this road by rewriting the constitution to tilt power away from the parliament and executive towards the bureaucracy and judiciary; by giving the army more funds, more independence, and more power under a new Internal Security Act; and by introducing a slew of new repressive laws. Yellow Shirt leaders advocated replacing one-person/one-vote with more qualified forms or franchise, or with a vague idea of “Thai style demo cracy” which meant no democracy at all. Businessmen talked longingly of a “China model”, meaning the combination of an open economy with authoritarian government. The movement against Thaksin had become a movement to limit democracy, often conducted in the name of defending the monarchy.

Red Shirts

This fierce conservative backlash provided the backdrop for the emergence of the Red Shirts. The core was formed by old leftist and other activist groups that came together to protest against the 2006 coup. They were joined by supporters of Thaksin, especially from the north-east, upper north, and migrant workers in the capital. Bit by bit, they were also joined by others who were simply incensed at the destruction of democratic institutions and principles by the conservative backlash. The Red Shirts campaigned through satellite TV, local radio stations, and print publications, all of which were harassed and often closed by government. From mid2008, the Red Shirts showed their strength through huge street and stadium rallies. In April 2009, they began to blockade parts of Bangkok, but were dispersed by a massive display of military force.

In March 2010, Red Shirts streamed into Bangkok to demand an immediate election. At first, the mood of the demonstration was good-natured, almost carnival-like. Large parts of the city population seemed welcoming and sympathetic. Government agreed to negotiate but refused to call an election earlier than the end of the year. The mood soured, violence emerged, and finally the army cleared the demonstration on 19 May 2010. Over the whole period of the protest, around 93 people were killed and a thousand injured. During the clearance, two dozen (mostly commercial) buildings were set alight in Bangkok, and government offices were torched in four provinces of the north-east. Both the army and the Red Shirts accused each other of being responsible for both the deaths and

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arson. A government-appointed investigation failed to find anything conclusive. Studies by Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group, relying mostly on evidence from journalists and other watchers, suggested that the responsibility was shared.

In the aftermath, the army and the Democrat government talked about “reconciliation” but resorted to repression. Red Shirt leaders were arrested and charged with terrorism. Almost 200 others were detained for over a year without trial. More media outlets were closed down, including blockage of thousands of web pages. Public funds were spent on campaigns to promote the monarchy as the focus of “national unity”. Although parliament and cabinet were still in place, the army seemed firmly in charge. The mass daily Thai Rath ran cartoon after cartoon showing the Democrat prime minister as a puppet with strings attached.

Election Campaigns

According to the constitution, an election was required by the end of 2011. As the army had failed abysmally to manage the election in 2007, many believed it would find some excuse to avoid holding another. But the Democrats persuaded the generals that it could win the poll, probably using three reasons. First, the Thaksinite

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side seemed in disarray. There was no clear leadership. In the aftermath of the violence of May 2010, there were disputes between component groups, especially between pro-Thaksin MPs and Red Shirt demonstrators. Second, the Democrats believed they had improved their chances by modifying the election format (shifting seats from constituency to party list; moving from multi-member to single-member constituencies; and redrawing boundaries of over a third of all constituencies). Third, the allied Bhumjai Thai (Thai Pride) Party believed it could undermine the support for Thaksin in the north-east using the old methods of money and official influence to lure both politicians and electors away from Thaksin.

Immediately the election was announced, the first and most important of these conditions evaporated. The Pheu Thai Party chose Thaksin’s youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as its candidate for prime minister. Thaksin said she was his “clone”. Election posters announced that “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”, and the party’s campaign platform was a reprise of earlier versions. Thaksin brokered a truce between internal factions, and settled conflicts over candidacies. Instead of Pheu Thai appearing disunited, leaderless, and directionless, it offered the electorate something very familiar – a party headed effectively by Thaksin and committed to his policies. In addition, Pheu Thai had a new leader with the assets of novelty, a winning smile, photogenic image, and the chance to become the country’s first female premier.

The Democrats had no response. The Party was backed into a negative campaign, claiming that a vote for Pheu Thai would give power to the “terrorists” who had burnt Bangkok in May 2010, and would guarantee further political chaos. This stance possibly swung some votes in the capital, but was mainly preaching to the converted.

Yingluck is a fresh face but no novice. She comes from a family deeply involved in politics for two generations. She has been active in the party, and a link between the party and her brother, for some time. According to a WikiLeaks cable, the US ambassador in 2009 predicted she would “have a bright future with the party”.

She will join a long line of pioneer female Asian premiers (or near-premiers) who have risen in succession to a male forebear: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Indira Gandhi, Sheik Hasina Wajed, Khaleda Zia, Benazir Bhutto, Corazon Aquino, Gloria Aroyo, Megawati Sukarnoputri and Aung San Suu Kyi. These figures get their political capital (their political meaning and bases of support) from their male forebear, while they add novelty and female values. But Yingluck differs from all these others in one key respect: her male forebear is still alive. That will present one of several tricky issues facing her government.

Challenges Ahead

During the election campaign, the Pheu Thai Party maintained a Janus-faced stance about Thaksin’s return. Some spokespersons announced that the party would bring him back, since that is what the supporters want. Others denied any such plan in order to avoid provoking opponents. In practice, Thaksin cannot return without some measure to overturn his conviction and prison sentence. The army would be bitterly opposed to any such move and would likely contrive a new round of street demonstrations. There are rumours that the palace and army have agreed to allow Thaksin’s return as long as he remained outside politics, but the same deal has been rumoured before and the condition is illusory since his supporters would certainly clamour for his return to the political stage.

A second thorny issue concerns the responsibility for deaths in May 2010. The Red Shirts demand that the soldiers responsible for excessive violence be identified and punished. The army will resist bitterly. Yingluck will have to choose between provoking the generals and disappointing the Red Shirts.

The new government will also have to deal with the inflated expectations of its supporters, especially for higher economic growth and more redistributive policies. Stimulating the economy will not be easy since there is already considerable repressed inflationary pressure and the world market is dull. Extending social policies will excite fears over growing public debt or higher taxation.

The pro-democracy lobby will expect the Yingluck government to undo some of the worst work of the post-coup government, especially the 2007 constitution, several repressive laws, and the Internal Security Act. An even larger question is how to roll back the expanded power and independence of the military.

The forces behind the conservative backlash of the last five years are unlikely to take this defeat with equanimity, not least because some fear retribution. The army regularly forswears any intention to conduct a coup, but the possibility still remains, particularly if the government were to threaten the personal interests of the senior generals. The courts have played a large role in the demolition of Thaksin’s political machine over the past five years, and could be called on again. Yingluck is vulnerable as she was involved in Thaksin’s financial chicanery. The Yellow Shirt movement is currently in disarray but could quickly revive if the army tugged on its leash.

But felling this government by coup, court case, or demonstration looks to be dangerous, at least in the short term. The net effect of deploying these methods has been to increase the vote for the Thaksinite party by 3.4 million over the past four years, expose the army to criticism, and drag the palace further into the political fray. The conservative forces are likely to play a waiting game – until Yingluck fails to deliver on people’s inflated expectations, until the inevitable corruption scandals emerge, until the divisions in the Thaksinite camp re-emerge. Meanwhile, they will concentrate on keeping Thaksin out of the country, fending off attempts to diminish the military’s power, blocking changes to the constitution, and urging the Democrats to become more electable.

For the past five years, the battleground of Thailand’s political conflict has been the streets. In this melee, the composition and weight of each side has been hard to gauge. The poll result gives a clear reading. The election also shifts the conflict back into the formal institutions of representative democracy. The message of this result (and the three prior ones) is that the conservative side faces a simple choice: either overthrow democracy or become a better competitor by compromising with the new political forces.

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