Thailand: Thaksin's Election Triumph: Re-packaging Old Politics?


Marc Askew

On 6 February the landslide victory of Thailand's ruling Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party delivered to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra an historic second term in office. Of a total of 500 lower house seats TRT emerged with 377, the Democrat Party 96, Chart Thai (Thai Nation Party) 25 and the new Mahachon (Public Party) 2.

Thaksin's governing party entered this election campaign with overwhelming advantages over its main rival, the beleaguered Democrat Party. Beginning as the core of a governing coalition in 2001 (with 248 seats), TRT absorbed three other political parties together with two large factions of its remaining coalition partner, the Chart Thai Party, increasing TRT seats to 319 by 2003. This gave Thaksin greater control over government appointments and afforded him immunity from parliamentary censure motions (under the 1997 constitution). These mergers gave TRT a virtual monopoly over the strategically important Northeastern constituencies as well a representation in the Muslim-dominated southern border provinces. TRT has been campaigning for the 2005 election since it first came to office. Its core group of managers has engineered an American presidential-style 'permanent campaign', whereby campaigning and governing have been fused through the skilful fashioning of policy and leadership image making. During 2003-4 Thaksin introduced further populist programs, including schemes of poverty registration and housing provision. From October 2004 Thaksin capitalised to the full on his advantages of incumbency: numerous major infrastructure projects were announced, aimed towards building and reinforcing electoral support in key regions, including Bangkok. Through trendy 'mobile cabinet meetings' and 'workshops' held in provincial centres, development projects were publicised as rewards for future electoral support.

Against the multiple advantages of TRT the Democrats faced problems. The party leader, Banyat Bantadtan (elected in place of Chuan Leekpai in 2003) lacked the public charisma to compete against the mercurial and well-publicised Prime Minister. They faced serious setbacks in July-September 2004 when some Democrat MPs defected to TRT and prominent members left to form the new Mahachon Party. But in August the DP was heartened by a victory in the Bangkok governor elections, which they interpreted as an urban protest vote against Thaksin's nepotistic domination of the state, control over the media and heavy-handed treatment of the southern border disturbances. Existing southern problems were exacerbated by the Tak Bai incident in October, where some 85 villagers were killed by the military. The DP took full advantage of this to attack Thaksin's leadership. But if Thaksin's popularity may have been waning, in late December it received a major boost following his highly publicized efforts to manage recovery operations in the wake of the Tsunami devastation on the Andaman coast.

TRT's campaign message stressed the government's proven record as a policy/performance-based organisation responsive to the people's needs and headed by a decisive leader of international renown. Arguing that over the past four years TRT had 'repaired' the damage of the 1997 crisis by restoring economic growth and attacking social problems, the party presented its next term as a period of 'strengthening'. A raft of 14 policy measures was announced, including deferred repayment loans for university students, establishment of village banks and tax relief for householders caring for elderly parents. On the hustings TRT candidates parroted Thaksin's punishment-reward mantra that electing non-government candidates would rob voters of development funds that were only available to government MPs. The Democrats highlighted the main issue as the defence of constitutional democracy based on checks-and-balances against Thaksin's monopolistic 'parliamentary dictatorship'. The DP slogan 'at least 201' highlighted the minimum number of MPs necessary to permit parliamentary censure motions against the Prime Minister. Arguing for sustainable, as opposed to shallow, populist solutions to pressing socio-economic problems, DP policies actually resembled TRT's raft of handouts, with promises of 'free' elementary education, allowances for the elderly, unemployment relief and vocational training. The Mahachon Party, a hybrid creature headed by two former Democrats - a prominent academic advocate of grass-roots democracy and an old-style machine politician - touted itself as a 'third force' and targeted the poverty-stricken Northeast, aiming to win at least 20 seats. It stressed public participation and decentralisation, but its main policies appeared very similar to the Democrats. The rump that remained of Chart Thai under the elderly Banharn Silpa-Archa focused its campaign around Banharn's earlier prime ministerial record and the commitment of its members to delivering development benefits to constituents.

Notwithstanding Thaksin's modernistic rhetoric stressing policy and government performance, the election showed that Thai political culture has comfortably acquired a contemporary gloss but remains essentially unchanged. Thaksin himself refused to debate with the Democrats on television, claiming that it was against Thai tradition. A national survey by one prominent academic institution revealed that the reputation and connections of candidates were far more important than party affiliation to most voters. This was born out in the election, where locally dominant political families were major players in rural constituency contests. TRT's electoral success was essentially based on its ability to accumulate MPs with strong canvassing networks and traditional voting bases. Well-established features of violence and vote buying were conspicuous, especially in hotly contested seats. Incumbent governments' use of state officials to work on their behalf (particularly the police) remains central to Thailand's winner-take-all politics. Many doubt the Electoral Commission's neutrality in cases of adjudication over electoral irregularities.

Important regional contrasts were apparent in the results. Notably, TRT increased its already strong hold over Bangkok (from 28 to 32 seats) at the expense of the Democrats. The DP clearly misread the import of the Bangkok governor election result. But TRT failed miserably in the South, where it gained only one seat and lost all 11 seats in the three Muslim border provinces, all but one seat falling to the Democrats. The Democrats now face a hard road of rethinking and rebuilding to become a convincing electoral alternative and prove that they are much more than a preferred party for southerners.

TRT is now able to form the first elected single-party government in Thailand's fraught political history. Until the advent of Thaksin's administration in 2001, no government has served a full term due to coalition government infighting or collapse through no-confidence motions. Despite this apparent vindication of the reformist 1997 constitution, many commentators fear that Thaksin's continuing rule signals the emergence of authoritarianism through subversion and manipulation of this constitution.

WATCHPOINT: Thaksin Shinawatra recently responded to domestic critics by posing the question: 'Where in the world is a single-party government called a dictatorship?' How justified are the critics who argue that the advent of the first (elected) single-party government in Thai history may jeopardise democratic government in Thailand?


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