People power

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 December, 2007, 12:00am

Thailand's general election on Sunday handed victory to the People Power Party (PPP) - intimately linked to deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - despite the junta's best efforts to avoid this result. The outcome signals a new polity that may be a harbinger of better government.

The result is a strong rebuke for the coup, the junta and its supporters among the elite and middle class. The PPP, which bagged 233 seats in the 480-member lower house of parliament, is now negotiating to form a coalition with over 300 seats. That would be enough to survive the loss of any seats to judgments of fraud by the Election Commission, which is investigating around 48 newly elected lawmakers across the political spectrum. Once the official results are announced early next month, the PPP plans to present its coalition and form a government.

Whether the Council for National Security, as the junta styles itself, will accept this remains to be seen. Some fear that the new government will be out for revenge: the PPP emerged from Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai, which was dissolved after an unusually zealous application of poll fraud laws by a tribunal in May. Furthermore, Thaksin is dangling the prospect of a return to politics.

A few months ago, former general Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, the coup leader, threatened another putsch. But General Anupong Paojinda, his hand-picked successor as army commander, has ruled out another coup. And perhaps with good reason: the military was handed immense powers by a security bill that passed just days before the election. Moreover, half the Senate's seats are appointed, a process the military is expected to influence.

Nevertheless, if the junta rejects the PPP it will be denying the will of the majority for a second time, risking a strong counter-reaction from the public. An accommodation that lets the PPP form a government while letting the junta off the hook, for now at least, seems to be in everybody's interest.

Whatever occurs over the next week or so, the election result has its roots in two connected developments of the past decade that have fundamentally changed politics in Thailand. The first was the 1997 constitution, torn up by Mr Sondhi, which put in place a political game favouring strong parties - to put an end to weak coalitions. The second was Thaksin's skill in playing this game, which delivered the government to parties able to campaign effectively nationwide: in this, Thai Rak Thai was ahead of the pack by a long measure.

That the PPP was able to pick up the Thai Rak Thai baton and run so far with it suggests farmers and blue-collar workers - for so long dismissed by the traditional elite, middle class and intelligentsia as uneducated and ignorant - increasingly understand the power afforded by their votes.

The PPP traded on the popularity of Thai Rak Thai, which won two consecutive elections by implementing policies that finally made ordinary people feel as if they mattered - such as providing affordable public health care. Their willingness to stick with Thaksin and his proxies shows clearly that the large majority - neglected by the failure of governments over the past three decades to tackle poverty and develop the country - have found a voice in democracy.

In this election, other parties shamelessly copied the Thai Rak Thai approach.

Yet, despite their canvassing and vote-buying networks, it was the PPP that came out on top. This indicates that policies and performance increasingly influence how people vote.

Now all political actors and interests will have to adjust to the new reality if they want to win elections and enjoy the fruits of government. Challengers to the PPP will have to spend money and time coming up with unique propositions, as Thai Rak Thai did, if they are to stand a fighting chance. Once in power, they are going to have to stick to their word.

If the result is better politics and effective government, the events of the past few years may turn out to be a turning towards a stronger polity for the nation. Almost certainly there will be troubles ahead, but it would be folly to write off Thailand.

David Fullbrook is an independent researcher and writer on Asian affairs