by William Itoh and Paul Wedel
The government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed by a military coup in September 2006, is gone, but personalities from that government have regained power, though some are forced to exercise that power from behind the scenes. The Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) which dominated the Thai parliament after dramatic election victories in 2001 and 2005, is also gone, but a very similar party has emerged to take its place. The Constitutional Court found TRT guilty of election fraud, ordered the party to dissolve, and banned 111 senior party executives from electoral politics for five years.
To the dismay of those who orchestrated the ouster of Thaksin and his party, the elections held on December 23, 2007, have opened a new chapter in Thai politics that includes many characters and a story line similar to the old Thaksin government. A new political party, the People’s Power Party (Palang Prachachon) under the leadership of veteran politician Samak Sundaravej, is now in government and is dominated by Thaksin policies, allies, and associates.December 23 Election — the Campaign
Parliamentary elections were held on December 23 to choose 480 members of the House of Representatives, 400 from constituencies and 80 selected on a proportional basis from party lists. A number of political parties emerged to contest the election. While many of the party names were new, the leaders were veteran politicians.
While Thaksin was still in exile and his TRT party officially disbanded, former allies and associates formed the People’s Power Party (PPP) under the leadership of Samak. The PPP is essentially a reincarnation of the TRT that took over the extensive TRT network upcountry and received unspecified amounts of financial support from Thaksin. Tapping into Thaksin’s popularity upcountry (rural Thailand), the PPP also gave voice to the general dissatisfaction with the Military Council and the interim government, and openly embraced many of Thaksin’s populist policy initiatives. As the campaign progressed, Samak's criticism of the coup and his frequent mention of Thaksin, positive notes with upcountry voters, left no doubt about the PPP’s ties to the former PM.
The Democrat Party (Prachatipat) had been in government from 1997 to 2001 under PM Chuan Leekpai when they were swept out of office by Thaksin’s new TRT Party in the January 2001 election. Under the leadership of 43-year-old, Oxford-educated Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrats’ “People First” campaign tried to change the perception that they were more focused on their constituencies in the middle class and the south than the more numerous rural population in the other three regions. Abhisit, fluent in English with a strong background in economics, was a clear favorite of business and the urban middle class, but not of lower income voters, especially in the north and the northeast. Another established party was the Thai Nation Party (Chart Thai) headed by Banharn Silpa-Archa. Banharn was Prime Minister under the coalition government that collapsed in late 1996.
Among the new parties, the Motherland Party (Puea Pandin) was formed under the leadership of another veteran politician from Khon Kaen, Suwit Kunkitti. Several former TRT cabinet members joined the Motherland Party, though the party campaigned by offering a “third choice” for voters looking for an alternative to the pro-Thaksin or anti-Thaksin parties. Other new parties that contested the December 23 election included the United Development Party (Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana), which brought together a notable collection of personalities from varied backgrounds under General Chetta Thanajaro; the Neutral Democratic Party (Matchima Thippathai), the creation of petrochemical tycoon Prachai Leophairatana, former head of the Thai Petrochemical Industries and Thaksin supporter-turned-critic; and the Royal People Party (Pracha Raj) founded by veteran politician Sanoh Thienthong, an early defector from the TRT, who had a following in Sa Kaew province.Election Results
Despite warnings of demonstrations, possible violence, and fraud at the ballot box, the December 23 elections went relatively smoothly. There was unprecedented voter turnout, and the disputed seats, a relatively small percentage, were adjudicated by the Elections Commission without agonizing delays.
The strong showing of Samak’s PPP surprised many observers as it won 233 seats in the 480-member House, allowing Samak the numbers to form a new coalition government. The PPP won a number of constituency seats in the north and northeast, areas where former Prime Minster Thaksin Shinawatra remained popular and where his TRT organization remained essentially intact. The popularity of Thaksin's policies was demonstrated not only by the PPP’s promises to continue those policies, but by the fact that even the former opposition Democrats campaigned on policies adapted from the ideas of the ousted prime minister.
The PPP was able to form a coalition by initially recruiting the parties with the fewest seats in the new parliament, the Neutral Democratic Party, the United Development Party, and the Royal People Party, which returned 11, 9, and 5 MPs respectively. After considerable maneuvering, the coalition was subsequently joined by the Thai Nation Party (34 MPs) and by the Motherland Party (24 MPs). With only the Democrats (164 MPs) in opposition, the PPP-led coalition now controls 316 of the 480 seats in the House.The New Government
New Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej is an outspoken veteran politician who served as deputy prime minister in the Banharn government and as governor of Bangkok. Well-known as a political personality often involved in sparring with the media, Samak was also a popular television chef with his own program, “Cooking While Grumbling.”
Samak took some time to recruit and form a cabinet, which was finally announced and presented to His Majesty the King on February 6. The cabinet choices are not particularly impressive, reflecting the need to accommodate PPP power brokers including close associates of former Prime Minister Thaksin, along with meeting the demands of the minor parties joining the coalition. Some of the more capable performers in Thaksin’s cabinet were among the 111 TRT senior members banned from politics for five years and thus ineligible for cabinet posts in the PPP coalition. Samak decided that he would personally take on the sensitive role of minister of defense. In doing so Samak has avoided any controversy over the appointment of one of several contenders from the Royal Thai Army. Samak has signaled his intention to avoid interference in the appointment of senior officers, one of the major grievances against former Prime Minister Thaksin within the ranks of the military.
Close associates to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in the new cabinet include Thaksin’s brother-in-law and PPP deputy leader, Somchai Wongsawat, appointed as deputy prime minister and minister for education. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee served in Thaksin’s government as spokesman, minister of information and communications technology, and deputy minister of public health. A medical doctor who operated a chain of successful weight loss clinics, Surapong is the PPP secretary general. Leaders in the Thai business community are skeptical of Surapong’s appointment as finance minister, but public criticism of his appointment has been restrained. Foreign Minister Noppadon Patama was Thaksin’s family lawyer. Oxford educated, Noppadon is considered one of the smartest members of the new cabinet.
Other senior appointments include Deputy Prime Minister Mingkwan Saensuwan, concurrently serving as commerce minister. Mingkwan is expected to head the government’s economic team and was often the PPP spokesman on economic issues during the campaign. One of the few ministers with strong management and business credentials, he was once the marketing director for Toyota Thailand and later director of the Mass Communications Organization of Thailand, the powerful state-owned media organization. Deputy Prime Minister Suwit Khunkitti, the head of the Puea Pandin party, was also appointed as minister of industry. Another veteran politician, Suwit served in previous governments as minister of justice, minister of education, minister of environment, and minister of agriculture. Deputy Prime Minister Sanan Kachornprasert, the deputy leader of the Chart Thai Party, served in Thaksin’s government as deputy PM after leaving the Democrat Party. Sanan had served as minister of the interior in the Chuan government but left politics after being found guilty of hiding assets by the Constitutional Court.
Others presiding over major ministries include Minister of Agriculture and Cooperatives Somsak Prissananantakul, Minister of Transport Santi Prompat, and Minister of Justice Sompong Amornwiwat. Energy Minister Lt. General Poonpirom Liptapanlop is the wife of former Deputy Prime Minister Suwat Liptapanlop, one of the 111 TRT senior executives banned from politics for five years. Public Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsup was deputy minister of transport and communications in Thaksin’s government. He is the leader of a politically powerful clan in the western province of Nakorn Pathom, which owns a number of trucking and landfill businesses. Information and Communications Technology Minister Man Pattanothai is the deputy leader of the Puea Pandin party. Minister of Tourism and Sports Weerasak Kohsurat is considered one of the more promising appointments. Probably the most controversial of Samak’s appointments was that of Minister of the Interior Chalerm Yoobamrung, a tough-talking former police captain whose rambunctious sons have literally fought it out with his former law enforcement colleagues in the nightclubs of Bangkok.
A complicating factor in assessing the cabinet is the fact that several of the new ministers are “nominees” of powerful politicians who were banned from politics for five years under the military-appointed government. These “nominees” can be expected to take considerable guidance from their banned mentors behind the scenes. This could make it difficult for Prime Minister Samak to control the cabinet. It also means there will be a powerful cabinet group likely to push for a fast end to the ban on the former TRT leaders and new elections sooner rather than later.
The Democrats under Abhisit are in opposition with 164 seats in the House. Although their performance failed to stop the PPP from taking power, it was a major improvement over the 2005 polls when Thaksin’s party gained more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. The Democrats had strong support in the south and in Bangkok but were unable to make inroads in PPP strongholds in the northeast and north. While the Democrats and their Bangkok supporters were disappointed by falling short of the numbers they needed to form the new government, they can take consolation in the close party list result (33 to 34 MPs for PPP) and overall popular vote. Abhisit’s role as party leader was strengthened, and the Democrats appear to welcome the role of opposition to Samak’s government as it faces major challenges in the coming months. The Democrats hope to convince the broader public of their depth, competence, and capacity to govern. The appointment of a Democrat “shadow cabinet” is designed to underscore the differences in leadership qualities between the government and the opposition.The Road Ahead
While Samak and the PPP were clearly the victors in the December 23 poll, few observers expect the current coalition government to complete its elected four-year term. Despite encouraging signs of economic growth, the new government faces real challenges in managing a stronger baht and high imported energy costs while improving the investment climate. The sudden rise in food prices is an overall boon to Thailand, the leading food exporter in Asia, but poses challenges in controlling inflation and maintaining the support of the urban working class.
Longer term problems include the widening income gap between urban Bangkok and the rural northeast, the shortcomings of the educational system, and the continued violence in the south. Economically, Thailand faces stiff competition from China, India, and Vietnam in labor-intensive industries and must find a way to avoid the “middle income trap” which could leave the country unable to compete with either advanced economies or those with cheap labor. The government has embraced the popular programs of the Thaksin government and launched a broad set of major infrastructure projects to boost the economy; doing so may open the door to charges of mismanagement and corruption. While many of the personalities associated with the coalition represent “old style” Thai politics, the threshold of tolerance of the media and the public have changed as a result of the turmoil of the past two years.
Samak’s success will depend on his own leadership qualities; his political skill in dealing with the factions in his own party, his five coalition partners, the military, and an articulate opposition party; and the ability of his cabinet to address the many pressing problems Thailand now faces. Another big challenge is Thaksin’s return to Thailand, the pending legal cases against him and his family, and his eventual return to politics (notwithstanding his claims to want to avoid political life). Samak’s apparent interest in serving as more than a short-term prime minister might be an unexpected complication for Thaksin’s political comeback. Once in power he made it clear that he would not govern as Thaksin’s surrogate and that he wants to stay in office for his full, four-year term. Thailand has a long tradition of forgiving past transgressions, but Thaksin himself will need to demonstrate patience and the ability to learn from past mistakes to make it happen. Other personalities among the 111 politicians barred from official office may not be so patient, and their proxies in the cabinet could pressure Samak to move more quickly.
A key issue will be revision of the constitution. The government coalition has announced plans for a major revision of the 2007 constitution drafted by appointees of the military. That constitution provided an official role for the military in dealing with political instability and greatly strengthened the powers of the courts and the bureaucracy at the expense of the elected politicians. The PPP is likely to push particularly hard for changes to the constitutional provisions that allow for dissolution of political parties as well as other measures that weaken political parties. This is an urgent and controversial issue since three of the coalition parties are threatened with dissolution due to the alleged malfeasance of political party leaders during the December election. The Election Commission has already recommended to the courts that two of the parties be dissolved and a case involving the PPP could lead to court consideration of the dissolution of that party. The courts have some discretion on whether to punish the individual party officials found guilty or to dissolve the party. The latter option would force new elections.
The opposition party and the less formal opposition movement, led by an organization called the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), have denounced the plan to revise the constitution as simply a move to evade responsibility for violating the election laws. The PAD, which launched the mass protests against the Thaksin government that ultimately led to the coup d'etat, maintains the power to organize street demonstrations, and these are likely to become a factor in the ongoing political struggle. Although the public appears weary of the turmoil of the past three years, there is little sympathy in Bangkok for the Samak government. Prime Minister Samak’s outspoken style tends to appeal to the less well-educated outside of the major cities. This segment of the population is crucial to electoral success but is not sufficient for governing success. The barrage of criticism already mounting from the PAD, the Democrat Party, the universities, and business may wear away at the support for the PPP. The PAD recently started holding public protests focused on the government’s plans to revise the constitution and has made Samak's resignation their key demand. Prime Minister Samak overreacted and announced that the police would forcibly end the demonstrations. This immediately generated new public support for the protesters. After consultations with the military and the police, however, Samak backed down from this threat. The PAD protesters have announced that they will spread their demonstrations to various parts of the city. Public reaction has been mixed, in part because of the fact that such demonstrations have made Bangkok’s already difficult traffic even worse.
Even if the PPP survives the move for dissolution and the threat of protests over the constitution, Samak himself faces prosecution on allegations of corruption involved in the purchase of fire trucks while he was governor of Bangkok. These political issues have contributed to the uncertainty that has dampened business and consumer confidence and led to relatively slow economic growth over the past two years. Rumors of yet another coup d’etat are difficult to discount entirely, and the military’s patience with public unrest, rising prices, and an ineffective government may be tested. Concerns are likely to mount as the country approaches the annual military reshuffle in September that has often led to military takeovers in the past. Political stability therefore is a key factor in determining whether Thailand will be able to return to anything like the fast-track economic growth that it enjoyed from 1978–1996.
Despite concerns about the manipulation of the election process or the possible intervention of the military to set aside the election, the new government is in place and is moving forward, though not without missteps or controversy. While the results of the election brought the return of Thaksin’s TRT under a different label, most Thais believe that the country has returned to parliamentary democracy and wish to avoid a repeat of the cycle of mass demonstrations, military intervention, and a nonelected government.
To some extent, Thailand has returned to the pattern of coalition governments of the early 1990s, marked by less effective political leadership and a stronger bureaucracy. The Samak government has moved aggressively to transfer key bureaucrats perceived as opposing its agenda to less important posts. Among those shoved aside were the outspoken national police chief Police General Seripisuth Temiyavej, officers involved in investigating charges against former PM Thaksin, and public health officials involved in the compulsory licensing of pharmaceuticals — a measure opposed by both multinational pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government. So, while government power has been whittled back from the heyday of the Thaksin government, there is still more power and cohesion than in most of Thailand’s previous elected governments. Given the nation’s experience with a dominant single party under Thaksin, who actively moved to undercut the checks and safeguards of the new system, at least a partial return to coalition government along past lines may be the preferred path.
Friends of Thailand are hopeful that the return to elected government, despite its many problems, will pave the way for a new foundation for Thailand’s political future. A successful transition to a democratically elected parliamentary government will improve the confidence of investors, both domestic and foreign, who have been on the sidelines in recent months. Many Thais believe that the country must return to stability and economic growth and that the nation has lost valuable time in facing the challenges of its economic competitors in the region. But it is not yet clear where various balances of power will stabilize: between the politicians and the bureaucracy, between the government and the opposition, between the Senate and the Lower House, between the civilians and the military, between the rural population and the urban population, between the elected politicians and the courts, and between the officials in office and the demonstrators in the streets.