Will it just be another Thai Groundhog Day at the polls?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 July, 2011, 12:00am


If Thai politics was a movie, it would be tempting to think of it as Groundhog Day, or at least Back to the Future.

Thailand's 47 million voters go to the polls today in an election that, once again, is all about fugitive Thaksin Shinawatra. With Thaksin come the divides that continue to split one of the region's traditionally freest countries.

Whatever Thaksin's detractors say about his lack of courage or his excesses, none doubt the political cunning of the former tycoon and prime minister, now three years into exile from a corruption sentence.

At various moments since the military coup that drove him from power in 2006, Thaksin has appeared finished amid legal and strategic manoeuvring by Thai establishment elites, as well as his own missteps. His call for a 'people's revolution' in early 2009 fell flat and was widely seen as a last desperate move.

Yet, two years on, here he is again, pulling strings from a luxury pad in Dubai. He has access to a private jet, loyal functionaries and a significant proportion of his former wealth.

At home, his Pheu Thai party political machine is, at least according to the last legal polls a week ago, poised for a solid victory today. If Pheu Thai can then cobble together a ruling coalition government, an amnesty may clear the way for him to return in November.

Thaksin's masterstroke this time has been the shrewd use of his youngest sister, Yingluck, as an overnight prime ministerial candidate from relative obscurity. There is not even a pretence of subtlety about who and what Yingluck, who has previously headed various arms of Thaksin's business empire, represents.

On the stump, the attractive, photogenic 44-year-old starts her speeches with a simple introduction: 'I'm the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra.' In case anyone misses the point, the billboards spell it out: 'Thaksin thinks, the party acts'.

Yingluck's presence has re-energised Thaksin's northern rural base - vast numbers of hard-bitten, often poor farmers that he successfully courted like no other politician in Thai history.

If it all sounds familiar, so is the situation on the other side of Thailand's seemingly intractable political divide. The royalist establishment is represented politically by the ruling Democrat Party, Southeast Asia's oldest liberal political grouping.

Headed by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij, both British-born and Oxford-educated, the Democrats represent the aspirations of a vast establishment of various Bangkok business and old money elites, as well as senior civil service, military and royal circles.

In late 2005 and early 2006, long before the coup, then-embattled opposition Democrats would describe their fear of what Thaksin represented. It wasn't just the political power of his populist policies, or his dictatorial tendencies, but the long-term threat he posed to the traditional fabric of Thai society, from the monarchy on down. They feared that a 30-year rule would see Thaksin reshape Thailand in his own image.

'It's all about keeping Thaksin from power or nearby as we face the reality of the death of the king and the transition that must follow,' one senior Democrat said privately at the time. 'What he could do to Thailand is just unthinkable.'

Six years on, through four prime ministers, legal challenges and the worst political violence in the capital in two decades, that sense of fight-to-the-death remains.

In private, senior democrats still talk the same way even if no one wants to discuss the king's death in public.

The world's longest reigning constitutional monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej is 85 and has been in declining health for years. Theoretically, above Thailand's often corrupt political arena, his long reign has given him considerable moral weight.

The throne will pass to his son, Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, but royal advisers acknowledge the respect and authority of his father can only be earned, not inherited. There remains doubt in many circles whether he will be able to gain that respect, at least in the short term, given rumours about his colourful lifestyle.

Some among the Bangkok elite fear that his relationship with Thaksin means he may lack the ability to stand up to him should he ever return to power - fears that are generally kept private given the continued application of Thailand's controversial lese-majeste laws.

Those wider fears are represented in part by worries that a Pheu Thai victory will result in yet another Thai military coup.

Current military chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha has repeatedly insisted that there will be no coup, even after urging Thais last month to vote for 'good people' who would protect the monarchy.

'We soldiers are staying where we are supposed to be,' Prayuth said on Thursday. 'Any government coming up has the right to take office ... I have no problem accepting whatever comes.'

Few, however, are taking him at his word. The military brass made similar statements in the months leading up to the 2006 coup - an event in which Prayuth was one of the key architects.

Abhisit has been highlighting the divides, painting a stark choice between his good governance and the return and planned exoneration of Thaksin. His dislike of Thaksin comes even as his government has tried to outdo the social policies of Thaksin - raising livelihoods of the elderly and rural poor and improving health care.

Yingluck has promised even more of the same - with economists fearing both parties will face a debt burden as they try to cut corporate taxes as well.

'My duty is to point out the facts,' Abhisit told thousands of his supporters who gathered for his last rally under drenching rain in Bangkok on Friday.

'I will stop talking when Thaksin stops 'thinking'.'

The rain poured over Yingluck's supporters as well as she promised to foster reconciliation to 'push the country forward'.

With the debate divided by a single personality - Thaksin - rather than policies, the Groundhog Day scenario is a grim prospect; Thailand, it seems, remains trapped in a cycle of political impasse between disputed elections and the threat of military intervention.

Not surprisingly, the questions loom large. Is there any way the cycle can be broken? And what is the mounting cost to a nation that had long fashioned itself as one of the proudly freest and open nations in the region?

Thai scholar Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, believes a deal to ease tensions will be vital to break the cycle after today's elections.

If Pheu Thai wins, carefully considered compromises will be needed to create a mutual road map of amnesties, pledges against retribution and promises not to take to the streets.

'The divisions are just too great, there really is no other way,' he said. 'Looking at the options, some kind of settlement is the only way to break the cycle.'

Thitinan acknowledged the considerable difficulties in such an approach. On the one side, Thaksin's rural 'red shirts' could easily feel alienated if their hero leaves them out of any establishment deal. Then there is a complex network of establishment institutions that must be pacified on the other side.

Last year's violence hangs heavily over today's polls, highlighting the risks at stake. Running skirmishes between 'red shirt' backed pro-Thaksin militants and the military in downtown Bangkok left 91 people dead and buildings torched.

'There has to be a recognition through all of this that Thai politics has changed,' he said. 'The rural electorate has a voice now and it has to be listened to by the establishment ... if not, we are back where we started.'

Their voices could be ignored in other ways, too. Even if Pheu Thai wins most of the 500 seats today, it could still easily find itself in opposition.

The scenario some diplomatic and foreign analysts consider most likely is the Democrats finishing second but acting swiftly, with establishment backing, to forge another ruling coalition with smaller parties.

Bob Broadfoot, a veteran Hong Kong-based analyst of Thai affairs, said he believed a negotiated settlement was impossible given the current divides. Instead he believed it would take another two or more elections for the impasse to work itself out.

In the short and medium term, he remained optimistic that the economy - which hit a growth rate of 7.8 per cent last year - would continue to flourish despite the pressures. 'One of the remarkable things about this situation is the way that the business community and the wider economy is somewhat insulated from the political situation, unlike say, the Philippines through the 1980s,' said Broadfoot, who runs Political and Economic Risk Consultancy.

'In the short term that's very important ... even though in the longer term Thailand is still going to need governments free to concentrate on improving education and health care and so on.'

He believed a combination of Thailand's relative openness, its price competitiveness and efficient government technocrats helped ensure the economy hummed along, despite the politicians.

Even so, many ordinary voters of all shades going to the polls today hope they are not voting for a continued impasse, but rather a bold new future - with or without Thaksin. Whether Thailand's politicians, and the system that surrounds them, can deliver such promises is far from clear.