Old and new money in a race for Thai votes
Thai politics has gradually been transformed into a two-party system. As in American politics, leadership and ideology have emerged as key determining factors behind the success or failure of political parties. In this context, the focus for the July 3 election is now on the charisma and policies of the two leading contenders: Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the pro-elite Democrat Party, and Yingluck Shinawatra, leader of the pro-poor Peua Thai party.
Much has been said about Abhisit. His rule of over 30 months was marked by bloody confrontations between the state and the 'red shirt' demonstrators and a growing rift between different political groups in society. He was born in Newcastle, England, and educated at Eton and Oxford. With this privileged background, Abhisit has been unable to shake off his elitist image. Indeed, he has taken advantage of his status to mingle with the old power.
Yingluck's background is different. Born in the northern city of Chiang Mai, she does not have an aristocratic family name. She grew up in a well-heeled family and was labelled the face of new money in Thailand. With an MBA from an American university, Yingluck is not intellectual but is good at doing business, much like her billionaire brother and ousted leader Thaksin Shinawatra.
Her opponents wrote her off because she lacked political experience. But as she gave her first political speech last Saturday in her hometown, the Democrats might have realised they had underestimated her. More than 15,000 supporters of Peua Thai turned up. Most were delighted to have a Shinawatra running in the polls; some were moved to tears.
Yingluck is ready to resurrect Thaksin's populist manifesto. 'Have you been happy during the past four to five years? I am told that your happiness and money in your pockets have disappeared,' she said in her speech. 'We will revive our policies from the past and implement them.'
Abhisit, who once detested Thaksin's past policies, now seems reluctant to attack Yingluck's proposed populism. This is because Abhisit himself also implemented a wide range of policies designed to appeal to the grass roots. Thus, while the two contenders come from different backgrounds and appear to be worlds apart, they are using the same method to win over voters.
Whereas Abhisit is considered a puppet of the old establishment, Yingluck is regarded as Thaksin's clone. Hence, on the surface, the contest may signify the continued struggle between the elite and the poor. In reality, it is merely another chapter of the power competition between two groups of elite: the old and new money.
Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies