Carefully, carefully everyone, writes Asia Sentinel’s Philip Bowring
Thailand’s Democrat Party deservedly got its comeuppance in Sunday’s Pheu Thai landslide for having abandoned its principles and come to power through a combination of military intervention and abuse of the judicial process. The sheer scale of the pro-Thaksin victory should leave the military and monarchist forces in no doubt at all that attempt to thwart this popular verdict can only have tragic consequences that would radicalize many who saw the election as an opportunity for the nation to return to a democratic path.
The result should also leave no doubt that support for the monarchy, though still robust, may be increasingly conditional on the monarchy itself distancing itself from some of its more extreme self-proclaimed defenders and recognizing that the next monarch will have to accept a much less exalted status than King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch.
But there are dangers too in such a sweeping victory, just as Thais found out after Thaksin’s original surge to power in the 2001 election. Most immediately there will be worries about Thaksin’s youngest sister, would-be Prime Minister Yingluck, including several minor parties in her government, even though Pheu Thai has an overall majority on its own. While her desire to be seen to have a government with the widest possible backing is understandable given continued nervousness about a right-wing reaction to the election, it may also imply a return to one of the worst but most enduring aspects of Thai coalition politics – the quest for money-making positions in government as the price of political support.
It had been one of the main objectives of the 1997 Constitution to strengthen the party system so as to reduce the tendency of governments to be formed out of coalitions of parties run on the basis of the pecuniary self-interests of their leading figures and members of parliament. It was Thaksin who made the best use of the new constitution, and his own financial resources, to create the Thai Rak Thai juggernaut which swept to power in and held on to it, albeit with a reduced majority, in 2006.
The bigger question now is whether Thaksin is any closer to understanding the resentments he aroused when in power, not just from old elites but from those who felt the force of his authoritarian instincts. This was the man who undermined the generally excellent 1997 constitution by subverting the checks and balances which were supposed to have been built into it, muzzling the press as well as abusing power to generate wealth for his supporters. All that was in addition to his extra-legal campaign of the murder of so-called drug dealers and his brutal actions in the south, which further alienated the Malay/Muslim population.
Thaksin bears the marks of the authoritarian populist who believes that a popular mandate is all he needs, and that institutions should be subservient to that. When in power he was an admirer of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, a man who similarly undermined institutions such as the judiciary, used the power of government to reward supporters with fat contracts and extended the power of the central government against that of the states. Thaksin hoped to stay in power as long as Mahathir – 22 years.