The politics of persuasion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

With his soft, smiling features and gentle delivery, ousted Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra does humility well. Bowing to the legions of impoverished supporters who turned out at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport on Thursday to welcome him home from exile, Thaksin was at his most humble.

He continued the theme through the day, stressing repeatedly that he wanted to live quietly and peacefully back in 'enchanted Thailand'. Calling for unity, he urged political ego be put aside for the sake of the nation, and insisted he has no desire to be involved in politics again.

At various times through his unique career as a billionaire telecoms tycoon turned political phenomenon, Thaksin has found and expressed apparently deep reserves of modesty. Shortly after taking power in 2001 he fought off court battles related to business transactions, putting his softer side on full display. Similarly, after veiled criticism two years later from Thailand's revered constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, Thaksin was remorseful.

Yet after each crisis, another side of Thaksin has bounced back stronger than before. That is the ambitious, autocratic side, say Thai political sources who know him well. Thaksin, they say, possesses considerable political cunning and an ability to control and manipulate in highly creative ways.

The ambitious side of Thaksin propelled him into power and kept him there until the coup of September 2006 shattered his five-year rule. It is that element of his character that was in evidence when he declared in private to foreign business executives, long before taking power, that he wanted to rule Thailand for 20 years. He would repeat the claim once he was prime minister, steering his Thai Rak Thai political machine to re-election in 2005 with an unprecedented absolute majority. As humble as he may be on occasion, he at other times revelled in descriptions of his powers as 'Asia's last strongman'.

It is those hard-boiled qualities rather than his humility that Thai political insiders are reflecting on this weekend. They are preparing for nothing less than a new Thaksin era as the tycoon gets down to business surrounded by political cronies in the luxury of Bangkok's Peninsula hotel.

Thaksin is likely to lie low for the time being, but just as he hosted dozens of Thai political backers in Hong Kong in his long months in exile, a steady stream of cronies are already making their way to his hotel suite.

Hours after his spokesmen repeatedly insisted Thaksin - still technically banned from politics - was an ordinary person, Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee announced he would happily take Thaksin's guidance on the economy.

Thaksin's supporters and opponents know the events of the next few months will be crucial. Given the forces at work, they will not only help determine Thailand's short-term future, but could shape the political landscape for years and even decades to come.

On the one side is Thaksin and the ruling People Power Party (PPP), a proxy for his outlawed Thai Rak Thai party - a populist and highly organised grouping that revolutionised Thai politics.

On the other are the military, bureaucratic and old-money elites loyal to King Bhumibol and long wary of Thaksin's dictatorial ways. King Bhumibol is now 80 and has been in ill health.

The death of the king is not publicly discussed in Thailand but the elites know the unique moral authority he commands, and which makes his discreet interventions in times of crisis so telling, will pass with him. What transpires now, therefore, could shape Thailand after the king is gone - something considered unthinkable by many ordinary Thais.

The fears of those elites were partly behind the coup that drove Thaksin from power. But the landslide victory of the Thaksin-backed PPP in December's election showed just how problematic coups are in modern Thailand, and lessons have been learned.

In a country whose recent history has been littered with sometimes bloody military interventions, a future putsch can never be ruled out, but few see it as feasible.

Noting that the timing could not be better for Thaksin's 'triumphant' return, leading Thai political scientist Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote yesterday that his opponents have been severely wounded and weakened.

'The military junta that ousted him is in disgrace,' the Chulalongkorn University academic wrote in a commentary published in the Bangkok Post. 'The far-reaching ramification of the military's retreat is that their direct role in the political arena is now marginalised and hemmed in.'

Yet as he strides into the vacuum, Thaksin may not find everything running in his direction.

First, he must deal with the slew of legal challenges arising from junta-inspired investigations, some still continuing, which could threaten any political ambitions he may harbour. Any overt attempts to influence a supposedly independent judiciary or other independent state bodies will be pounced on by a political opposition reinvigorated by the coup, and those bodies may be less inclined to buckle than before.

The legal issues include claims he benefited from a sweetheart land deal while in power and made fraudulent filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission when he listed a property firm in 2003. Some US$1.9 billion of his family's assets are still frozen and a five-year ban on political activity imposed in May last year, when the courts disbanded his party, is still in force.

Other issues could prove even trickier. Political sources say Thaksin has been forced to return at this moment to heal a growing rift between the PPP and outspoken prime minister Samak Sundaravej.

Right-winger Mr Samak is a tough old-stager and an unusual - and recent - political bedfellow for Thaksin. He gives the former prime minister establishment and royal links.

He ran a shrewd campaign in December, lavishing praise on the former leader and his loans-to-the-poor populism. Now in power, he has reinstituted Thaksin's controversial crackdown on the drugs trade, which left than 2,500 people dead and drew international condemnation. Other populist policies of the Thaksin era are set to be revived.

However, he has also managed to appoint himself defence minister - apparently without consulting Thaksin - and is no longer sounding so definite about overturning the bans on political activity imposed on former Thai Rak Thai officials.

As defence minister he could have a big say in the annual October reshuffle of the military brass - a highly sensitive and intensely political matter for both leaders. Yesterday he was already insisting there was room for just one prime minister.

'How Thaksin reins in or even disposes of Mr Samak is going to be fascinating to watch,' said one Thai political insider. 'Samak is a bruiser and is not going to be easily pushed around now he is finally in the big job. He clearly likes the feel of those prime ministerial robes.'

Mr Samak also faces his own legal troubles, which pre-date his election win. If he loses an appeal against a defamation-of-character conviction he will have to surrender his premiership.

Brian Dougherty, a veteran analyst of the Thai political scene at Hong Kong-headquartered security consultancy Hill and Associates, said he is telling clients that Thaksin is incapable of keeping out of politics.

'Once the legal issues are out of the way - and he surely presumes these will go in his favour - one should expect Thaksin to gradually move toward full involvement in government,' Mr Dougherty said.

'As far as I know, he has never renounced the desire to rule Thailand for 20 years that he expressed when he first came to power.

'For many people that will be a harsh, upsetting reality and have a huge impact on the country. The next few months will tell us whether he can begin to achieve that.'