Sunday, July 24, 2011

Thailand's elections rethought

An interesting point of view on Thai politics that tempers my demands to let democracy run its course:

In 1973, student-led protests ended military rule in Thailand and gave birth to a civil society movement. Its members came mostly from an expanding middle class in Bangkok that had benefited from new opportunities for university educations and was increasingly politically assertive. Thai civil society groups wanted a permanent end to military rule and government corruption, and a halt to the growing influence of money in politics, which had become pervasive as businessmen came to dominate parliament.

By 1997, these groups had grown strong enough to force parliament to agree to a new constitution. Significantly, it was drafted not by serving politicians or bureaucrats but by a popularly elected committee. The new constitution made too many changes to the existing charter to list here, but the underlying purpose was simple: to enforce the rule of law. It established, among other independent institutions, a national anti-corruption commission, a constitutional court and an election commission, and it explicitly recognized many human rights. Some questioned how effective the changes would be, but in general the 1997 constitution was hailed as a major advance for democracy in Thailand.

In 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand’s wealthiest business executives, was elected prime minister. One reason for his decisive victory was a populist program to help Thailand’s rural poor, but his main message was that Thailand needed to be run in a modern, businesslike way. Thaksin liked to call himself the “CEO prime minister,” and he played down the importance of the system established by the 1997 constitution, arguing that it wasn’t law that mattered but results.

Thaksin asserted that since he was a moral person and a successful executive, he had the best claim to govern Thailand, and that the opposition was illegitimate. Over time, more Thais saw in his actions evidence that he was using his office and his enormous personal wealth to gut the constitutional reforms of any real meaning and to perpetuate himself in power. This was the main reason for the conflict between Thaksin and his opponents, not the desire of a pampered elite in Bangkok to maintain its privileges. In 2006, after Thaksin tried to manipulate the army promotion list, installing loyalists in key command positions to further his reelection prospects, the army acted to remove him.

This was a useful reminder to me of some of the events that began back in 2006 (more information on Wikipedia - see section "Origins of the Crisis"):
  1. The move by Thaksin to install loyalists in the army.
  2. The sale of Shin Corp and a ruling that this sale (of about US$2 billion) was exempt from capital gains taxes
Both of these struck the Bangkok elite (and myself still) as hypocritical (my word) since Thaksin was not really looking after the rural poor but looking after himself.

The way forward does not look too optimistic. The NYT reports of a growing Shinawatra dynasty in Thai politics.

Once again the Shinawatra clan has pulled off an unlikely feat: One of the wealthiest families in Thailand has convinced the poor and politically disenfranchised that it understands their problems, feels their pain and will fight for their rights.

In grubby market stalls and ramshackle shops, residents flew red flags that advertised their support for Thaksin Shinawatra and his younger sister, Yingluck, who is now in line to become Thailand’s first female prime minister.

“We are so happy and relieved,” said Somboon Kamduang, a 55-year-old resident who scratches out a living selling peanuts and beans in the market and singing in restaurants at night.

Mr. Somboon said he was one of dozens of residents who gathered at the covered marketplace on Sunday night to watch election returns on television — and cheer the victory.

There were similar celebrations across north and northeast Thailand after the surprisingly strong victory of Pheu Thai, as the party led by Ms. Yingluck is known. Opponents of the party fear a surge of populist policies, increased debt for the country and a revival of what they say were efforts by Mr. Thaksin to dilute democratic checks and balances.
A caravan of pick-up trucks from the Pheu Thai Party drove triumphantly through town on Monday, with loudspeakers blaring a grateful message to voters: “We will bring happiness back to you, brothers and sisters! Thank you!”

The caravan was led by Mr. Thaksin’s niece, Chinnicha Wongsawad, who was re-elected as a member of Parliament with a commanding 78 percent of the vote. At 29 years old she is one of the youngest members of the Shinawatra family.

She joins the growing dynasty: In 1969 Mr. Thaksin’s father, Lerdt, was elected to Parliament and served a little more than two years. (Like his son nearly four decades later, his term was interrupted by a military coup.) Mr. Thaksin’s sister, Yaowalak, served as an official in the municipal government of Chiang Mai, the busy capital of northern Thailand a half-hour drive from here. Mr. Thaksin’s brother, Payap, was a member of Parliament for one year until the 2006 coup.

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