Thaksin’s long shadow

How the Thai ex-prime minister still dominates his country’s politics

With 232 seats out of a total of 480 in the Thai parliament, the People’s Power Party (PPP) won the parliamentary election on 23. December 2007 won in the Southeast Asian kingdom. According to the official final results, the Democrat Party has 165 seats. The PPP needs a coalition partner to form the government.

Elections were held in Thailand, which is not natural for a country with a military government. However, Thai generals will not be satisfied with the election results. Most of the votes went to the party that succeeded Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai – the People’s Power Party) (PPP) or. the Palang Prachachon Party in Thai. A lost year for the country after nothing has changed?

Not quite, because for one thing the election was much closer than the 2001 elections, in which Thaksin came to power by a landslide, the 2005 elections, in which Thai Rak Thai was able to strengthen its position with another landslide, and even more so in the annulled elections of 2006, when Thai Rak Thai virtually ran alone. On the other hand, the Democrat Party, the strongest opposition party since 2001, was able to gain a considerable number of votes. PPP leader Samak Sundaravej has already claimed the post of prime minister on election night. If the PPP fails to form a coalition, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva is trying to keep himself in talks for a possible Democrat Party-led coalition. The horse-trading for power is open, and the laughing stock is political zombie Barnharn Silpa-Archa of the Thai Nation Party. It emerged from the election as the third strongest force and would now like to become the Thai FDP.

By-elections will have to be held in some constituencies as the Election Commission has received complaints of vote buying. This by-election will be held on 13. January 2008.

Popular vote on the coup

The PPP’s electoral success is primarily a slap in the face of the army leadership in the Council for National Security (CNS), the body of junta generals. The PPP managed to turn the parliamentary election into a vote on the coup after the referendum on the new constitution in August 2007.

While the PPP had consistently positioned itself against the coup (Showing the military the teeth?), the Democrat Party had not found a clear line on militarism. Rather, the party’s position was "Actually, we don’t think the coup is good either, but the …" And the fact that Abhisit’s party was the CNS’s party of choice to head the new government has made it unelectable in rough parts of the country. In the northeast, where TRT was particularly strong, the Democrat Party scored just around two percent.

People’s Power Party: Thai Rak Thai Reloaded

The history of the PPP is a curiosity of Thai politics. For a long time it was an insignificant party that had not attracted much attention nationwide. After the TRT was disbanded for election fraud, several of TRT’s coarse wings joined the small PPP. Since the new members were quickly in the majority, the takeover was quickly completed, the logo was revised so that it now resembles the well-known TRT logo strikingly. The candidates had all been on the TRT posters in the last election, and the election program continues the TRT program seamlessly, even the names for individual demand programs such as One Tambon One Product (OTOP) have remained the same. The only difference is that instead of the square face of Thaksin Shinawatra, there is the beefy one of Samak Sundaravej, the party leader and bogeyman of Bangkok.

In the past, the political bully Samak has never missed an opportunity to openly attack his political opponents below the belt in such a way that he is as divisive as Thaksin. The party has its supporters mainly among the poor, especially in the agricultural and deprived northeast and north of the country, where Thaksin also comes from. However, their popularity there is based primarily on their closeness to Thaksin, which Samak himself repeatedly emphasized during the election campaign and called himself Thaksin’s representative. Not least because of this, support for the election campaign also came from cab and tuk-tuk drivers, who often put the party logo on their vehicles. Logos of other parties did not find such circulation.

Referendum on Thaksin

Thaksin and the legacy of the TRT were the second asset Samak could use in the election campaign. In Thailand, politics is more closely associated with individuals than with parties. Therefore, the new party name was less decisive for the election than the fact that the faces already known from TRT times were on the ballot. As a result, especially in the north and northeast, the election also became a vote on whether Thaksin should return to the country. Samak had said shortly before the election date that under him as prime minister Thaksin would return on Valentine’s Day 2008. He also wants to grant amnesty to the 111 senior TRT members who were also banned from politics for five years as part of the party ban.

The Bangkok elite had therefore tried everything to prevent the PPP from winning the elections. In the new election laws, there are some passages that seem to have only one purpose: to weaken the PPP.

For example, there are now no more nationwide party lists, but the country has been divided into eight regions. A striking feature of this type of constituency geometry is that the northeast, where the PPP is overrepresented, has been partially grouped with adjacent provinces where other parties are stronger.

Democracy in Thailand – democracy from above

Ironically, the history of Thai democracy begins with the royal house, more precisely with King Rama VI., also called Vajiravudh. He, who had become absolute monarch of Siam – Thailand’s name at the time – in 1910, could be called the father of Thai democracy in some respects. Surrounded by the colonial powers of Great Britain (in Burma and Malaysia) and France (in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam), the Siamese sovereign sought ways to strengthen the country and protect it against colonization. On the one hand, he reorganized the country’s previously pluralistic self-image into an ethnocentric one, but on the other hand, he also recognized that Siam could no longer continue to exist as an absolute monarchy without losing touch with the technical and social development of the rest of the world. Therefore, he experimented with democracy, preferring model villages to govern themselves by democratic means. He did not introduce democracy at the national level because his subjects were "not ready" for democracy.

Even though Rama VI. If the Thai government has not introduced democracy, the Thai democracy is nevertheless a democracy from above, namely the result of a revolution of the military elite in 1932. The point of reference was Turkey, which had also emerged from the Ottoman Empire a few years earlier under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. As different as Thailand and Turkey are, they both share the military’s self-image as the guardians of democracy.

This also shows the difference between democracy in the West and democracy in Southeast Asia – in Great Britain, King John of England was forced to surrender some of his rights with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. But it was above all through the Bill of Rights that the British king was finally defined in 1689 as a person subject to the law. This was preceded by decades of conflict between the parliament and the king. The French fought for the sovereignty of the people themselves. The self-understanding of the citizens is thus naturally quite different from when democracy is seen as a gift from above.

The result in Thailand is a kind of paternalistic democracy in which electoral and party platforms are far less important than people-especially when the parties’ platforms do not present alternatives to each other-and where autocrats like Thaksin Shinawatra are accepted as long as they serve their electorate well enough. In Malaysia, Mahatir bin Mohamad ruled the country with an iron hand from 1983 to 2003; in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew has presided over the politics of the city-state since 1959; in Pakistan – after all, an official ally of the United States – Pervez Musharraf has ruled at the head of a military government since 2001 and declared a state of emergency for a month and a half in November.

The landscape of Thai politics in the post-Thaksin era is very different from what it was before. Despite abuses of power, allegations of corruption and irregularities, Thaksin’s populist policies, in addition to enriching himself, have given many people from Thailand’s precariat access to affordable health care or opportunities for education. In this way, he had made it clear to many Thais from the provinces that democracy can be more than just pocketing the cash gifts on election day.

However, Thaksin’s policy was a pure patronage policy, which bypassed the elite of the country. Intoxicated by his own success, he had lost touch with the ground and thought himself invincible. A misconception, but Thaksin remains the leading figure, even from London. For the populist policies he initiated can be found in variations in the party platforms of all the major parties in the kingdom. A return to the time before TRT is no longer possible.

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