Thailand: 12 Months On - Thaksin Fever Ebbs

2002

Dr John Funston

Prime Minister Thaksin took power last February amidst euphoric hopes that he would solve Thailand’s problems overnight. That mood persisted throughout the first half of the year, with his impeachment by the National Counter Corruption Commission for false declaration of assets actually increasing sympathy for him. But after judges voted eight to seven against conviction, public support has gradually declined. By December opinion polls showed his popularity at around 48 per cent – still respectable, but well down on 72 per cent earlier in the year.

The print media have become more critical. Anti-Thaksin comments are now widespread in the major Thai-language papers, including ones that until recently had been government allies, such as the mass circulation Thai Rath.

Thaksin’s standing in civil society has declined. In December two leading civil society activists who had supported Thaksin earlier questioned his reform commitment.

Thaksin has also had problems with Thailand’s revered monarchy. In his annual birthday address in December the King warned against ego and double standards, and national decline that threatened catastrophe – an unprecedented public reprimand.

What’s caused this turnaround?

One factor is the prime minister’s style – his enormous self-confidence and intolerance of critics. As early as May former Prime Minister Anand warned: ‘When a country has a leader who considers himself a white knight, who can solve every problem, has an answer to every question and can [single-handedly] make the nation survive, then there must be great caution’.

Thaksin’s popularity also declined as economic growth slowed to around 1.5 per cent, rather than speeding up as promised. An adverse international environment played a part, but critics increasingly questioned government policies, implementation, and perceived conflicts of interest involving Thaksin and other business members of his cabinet.

Finally, there’s been widespread concern over a retreat from political reform. Thaksin has made concessions to factional interests in the ruling coalition, depended heavily on traditional politicians and the military, and sought to muzzle an independent media. His support for independent institutions such as the National Counter Corruption Commission has been lukewarm, and he has foreshadowed a review of several democratic constitutional guarantees.

Thaksin is not in immediate danger of losing power, thanks in part to the 1997 constitution which makes it difficult for parliamentarians to jump parties and force governmental change during a four-year term. But new constitutional arrangements cannot guarantee political longevity of the type Thaksin desires – two consecutive terms – unless he regains support from sections of civil society and the media, and at least the acquiescence of the monarchy.

WATCHPOINT: Government handling of telecommunications deregulation, currently a focus of civil society and the media, will test Thaksin’s commitment to open and responsible government. Proposals by a government-appointed advisory group include drastic reductions in payments to the state, with estimated benefits of around US$250 million to Thaksin’s family company.

 

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