Thailand's only chance of success

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 July, 2011, 12:00am


After five years of political turmoil, Thailand has held a peaceful election, ushering in a new government in an uncharacteristically mature fashion. Instead of the usual violence, ill-will and bloody-mindedness, there have been congratulations, smiles and pledges of co-operation. But polls are the easy part of democracy; the immensely difficult part now lies ahead. The task is made especially challenging now that allies of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, living a fugitive from Thai justice in exile in Dubai, have so overwhelmingly swept back into power.

This time, Thaksin's younger sister, successful businesswoman Yingluck Shinawatra, was his proxy and she has done him proud. Her Puea Thai party took a majority of the 500 seats in parliament and in short order after Sunday's vote strengthened its position by stitching up a coalition with four small parties. Such a precaution is vital despite the goodwill shown by opponents; the army ultimately holds sway and despite assurances that it will stay out of politics, its top generals are unlikely to be happy. Nor are the monarchist establishment or urban elite, who have repeatedly used protests, the courts and military pressure to rid Thailand of Thaksin and his influence.

Yingluck conducted a slick and smart campaign that won her support beyond Thaksin's rural-poor base. Despite her brother referring to her as his clone, she has proven herself a master strategist in her own right, outwitting outgoing prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's Democrats at every turn. She has vowed not to avenge the 2006 coup or pardon her brother and let him return home. For Thailand's sake, she has to keep her word - the non-negotiated reappearance of so divisive a figure is likely to be a guaranteed return of political breakdown.

In Bangkok last year, many of Thaksin's red-shirted supporters were among 90 people killed in the worst violence in decades. With their democratic voice perceived as having been stolen by military interference - Abhisit was seen as a puppet of the generals - taking to the streets was their best option for justice. Time and again, they faced the yellow shirts of the monarchists, backed by the army, bringing the capital - and, by association - the economy, to a grinding halt.

Thais have voted for the party they believe offers the best way forward and their choice has to be respected. But that path is not easy given that the two most difficult issues facing the country were not addressed during campaigning: the future role of the monarchy and devolving power away from Bangkok. With Thaksin's politically inexperienced sister at the nation's helm and suspicions among opponents that he is about to rush home, they are even more daunting. Only by all sides keeping their pledges and resuming the normal process of government is there a chance of success.