Battle between old and new elite threatens Thai democracy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 June, 2011, 12:00am


Thailand's elites seem determined to tear each other apart - and the country, too, if necessary - in what is supposed to be an election to restore full democracy to the country. Far from it: the way the campaign is going, chances are that Thailand will face another coup or dictatorship before long.

Opinion polls give the opposition Peua Thai party a 47 to 40 per cent lead over the Democrats, the main party in the government. But there is almost a month to go before the polls on July 3, plenty of time for money and votes to change hands.

It is also a measure of the lack of progress that the election is seen, correctly surely, as a continuing contest between the nouveau arriviste elite around former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the older entrenched elites of monarchy, military, bureaucrats and rich Chinese businessmen.

Thaksin is not contesting the election. He is in sumptuous exile in Dubai on a passport issued by Montenegro, with a jail sentence waiting if he returns to Thailand. In mercurial interviews, he says all he wants to do is return and teach, play golf and guide his children in their business endeavours. However, his protests that it is time for 'reconciliation' in Thailand seem to indicate that he still sees himself as a player in the reconciling.

Thaksin never left Thai politics. He is in close touch with his key lieutenants and through video links with the masses of his 'red shirt' supporters. Thaksin's guiding hand was shown in the choice of his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, as leader for the Peua Thai party. She is a 43-year-old business executive with no political experience and no record of political views. She has been derided as a 'clone' of Thaksin, but the description is his own. He told ABC of Australia that this did not mean she was his puppet, saying she had worked for him from the beginning; he taught her and her working style was almost the same, he said. Clone meant 'same culture, the same background, the same ideas, the same attitude, the same thinking'.

It does not say much for the democracy of the Peua Thai that such a political greenhorn was shoehorned in as leader without debate, election or murmur. The only excuse is that so many experienced Thaksin supporters have been disqualified.

The more likely explanation is Thaksin's need for loyalty. Asked about becoming prime minister again, he replied: 'My youngest sister is already there, so no need for me to go back as a prime minister.' But he did not answer when asked if he would ever be prime minister again.

Does anyone doubt that if the Peua Thai won the election Thaksin would be itching to come back? Or that the other elites, the royal ultra-loyalists and the military especially, would do their utmost to prevent his return to power?

It would be a fascinating struggle - too bad for the used and abused Thai people caught in the middle. Thaksin should not be underestimated: in office, he was ruthlessly opportunistic. He treated parliament and even his cabinet as a rubber stamp, was deaf to constructive criticism, and sacrificed thousands of lives in crackdowns against drugs and Muslim dissidents in the south.

Thaksin remains popular, but he is hardly a man of the people.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, in contrast, suffers by being seen as a prisoner of the old elite. No matter how much he protests - correctly - that he got the job through legitimate vote in parliament and has held it through votes of confidence, critics claim that the old guard moved the goalposts by banning Thaksin's parties plus politicians whom they could not bribe to change sides.

Abhisit's position has become more uncomfortable because both the yellow-shirted loyalists and the army seem determined to hem him in. Assertion of Thai claims to the 4.6 square kilometres around the Preah Vihear Temple in Cambodia and a military-backed campaign to uphold strict lese majeste laws have left Abhisit looking weak and only in charge of part of the government by military permission.

Meanwhile, Yingluck is ahead in the political debate by refusing to debate with Abhisit. She just smiles and recites the platitudinous slogans of her brother.

Kevin Rafferty was editor-in-chief of Business Day Thailand