A Victory for Thailand's Ex-Leader

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Samak Sundaravej, leader of Thailand's People's Power Party, flashes a victory sign after a press conference at party headquarters in Bangkok, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2007

Thailand has often been looked upon as a bellwether for the development of democracy in Southeast Asia, and on the surface at least, Sunday's largely fair and trouble-free national election — Thailand's first since a September 2006 military coup — seemed to be a good sign. The country's political troubles, however, may be far from over.

The People Power Party (PPP), which campaigned on promises to pardon former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in last year's military takeover, came within 12 seats of capturing an absolute majority in parliament. But the win is not as convincing as it appears: it falls far short of the landslide victory Thaksin himself scored in a 2005 election, and the popular vote was much closer than the number of seats in parliament won by the two leading parties would indicate (The PPP won 229 seats; the second-place Democrat Party, 164). Despite the PPP's strong showing, its leaders spent Monday bargaining with smaller parties to forge the legislative coalition it will need to form a government — a task the Democrats will try to make as hard as possible for them. Reports Monday suggested that some smaller parties may be reluctant to join with the PPP, believing they can get a better deal from the Democrats.

With 18 coups since the World War II and 18 different constitutions, Thailand has yet to find a democratic framework or formula where everyone is reasonably satisfied. It remains a nation deeply divided along class, regional and religious lines. The man who most successfully exploited these divisions was Thaksin, the patron of the PPP now living in self-imposed exile in England. Using his leverage as one of Thailand's richest men, he successfully wooed lawmakers from several other political parties to join his Thai Rak Thai party in the late 1990s. Thai Rak Thai (TRT) dominated Thailand's political landscape for five years by appealing to the nation's rural poor who form the majority of voters, particularly in the northeast, with populist policies including cheap credit and debt moratoriums.

But while Thaksin may have been skilled at electoral politics, critics accused him of undermining constitutional checks and balances on his authority and abusing his power to intimidate opponents. Members of the urban middle class, who hadn't benefited from Thaksin's programs, eventually spilled into the streets demanding his ouster, prompting military intervention and a bloodless coup. TRT was dissolved by a Constitutional Tribunal, which found its members guilty of electoral fraud, and charges of corruption have been brought against Thaksin who, along with 110 other TRT executives, was banned from politics for five years.

Now the rural poor have voted for the PPP, a party made up largely of former TRT members whose leader, Samak Sundaravej, says he will pardon Thaksin and bring back his populist agenda. But bringing Thaksin back is easier said than done. It risks antagonizing military leaders, who fear the former Prime Minister will seek revenge for the coup; Muslims in Thailand's restive south, who suffered under the military clampdown imposed during his rule; southerners in general, who traditionally vote for the Democrats and felt ignored by Thaksin's government; and his longtime foes, the urban, Bangkok-centered middle class. Some who led the anti-Thaksin demonstrations in 2006 have threatened to do so again if he returns. Rosana Tositrakul, Secretary General of the Thai Holistic Health Foundation and a former protest leader, says she will wait and see what a PPP government does. But if Thaksin was pardoned and his corruption cases swept under the carpet, "it could spark political unrest," she says. Other analysts warn it could even spark another military takeover.

In the aftermath of his victory, Samak said Thaksin "must stay away from politics for a while" while he fights to have the cases against him resolved in the courts; other members of the PPP have predicted Thaksin could return by Valentine's Day. But Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, says that Samak will have to keep Thaksin off the agenda — and out of power — if he wants to win over parties to join his coalition. "Samak will need to be pragmatic and flexible. He may have to listen to Thaksin, but he also has to listen to civil society," Panitan says. As he sets about negotiating with other parties to form a government he hopes will last, Samak would do well to bear in mind a common Thai saying: The provinces send governments to Bangkok, and Bangkok sends them back.