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Thailand and Post-Thaksin Politics

By Bertil Lintner

Thailand's once-mighty Thai Rak Thai party may been dissolved by the courts because of irregularities during an annulled general election in April last year, and its leader, and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, may be facing corruption charges in court and have been banned from political activities for a five-year period - but he is also showing very clearly that he is not going to be silenced by such actions by the post-coup Thai state.

In a highly-publicised move in mid-June, he announced from his exile in London that he intended to buy Manchester City Football Club for a staggering 86.1 million British pounds. That has kept him in the public eye - at the same time as he has shown that he still has money, despite the fact that the courts have frozen more than 50 billion Baht in his Thai bank accounts. And it was money that helped him win two previous elections, 2001 and 2005, when Thai Rak Thai for the first time in Thai history that a single party secured an absolute majority in the now dissolved House of Representatives.

But it may not be that easy this time, even if Thai Rak Thai is resurrected under another name. On June 24, local mayoral elections were held in the northern city of Chiang Mai, Thaksin's hometown and long considered a Thai Rak Thai stronghold. Duentemduang na Chiang Mai, a former MP for the Democrats, which has ruled the country off and on since the end of World War II and the main opposition party when Thaksin was in power, won a landslide victory. Her arch-rival and former mayor, Boonlert Buranupakorn, and his former aid Pornchai Jittanavasathien - both considered Thaksin loyalists - were defeated, despite widespread allegations of vote-buying and attempts to block Duentemduang's candidature in the Elections Commission.

"Chiang Mai residents vote for change," read a headline in the English-language Bangkok Post after the election. And if Thaksin loyalists failed to win on his own turf, they may not stand much of a chance in the general elections, which the military-appointed government has promised will be held before the end of the year. Attempts by them to organise anti-coup demonstrations have not fared very well either; no more than 10,000 showed up at a weekend rally in mid-June and, according to reports in the Thai media, most of them seemed to have been paid to participate. When the weekend was over, the demonstrators returned home to their respective upcountry provinces - quite unlike the situation last year, when tens of thousands of anti-Thaksin protesters rallied almost daily in Bangkok.

However, the vote for change in Chiang Mai was not just a vote against Thaksin. The public may not support a return of Thaksin, but confidence in the present government is also eroding, of which the military is acutely aware. Opinion polls show that a record-low 13 per cent of the public approve of the present order; the vast majority wants elections to be held and a new, popular government in place. At least for now, the Democrats seem to be heading for a good showing at the polls, and their leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has become more of a public figure since the ban on overt political activities was lifted in late May. He is young and bright but, at 43, perhaps still a bit too young for most Thais, who are used to older politicians.

It is also possible that an independent will be leading a coalition government, which may include the Democrats. A favourite candidate right now is Purachai Piumsomboon, a former deputy prime minister who resigned in January 2005. Recent opinion polls show that 41.7 percent of respondents in Bangkok favour him because he is seen as "Mister Clean." He served under Thaksin during the first term of his premiership, and then launched a "social order" campaign against sex clubs and similar establishments. And, unlike his erstwhile mentor Thaksin, no one has accused Purachai of being corrupt.

Whatever the case, the Thaksin era in Thai politics seems to be over, and new actors are emerging on the scene. In the final analysis, the Thais seem to be tired of decades of corruption, which many feel only got worse under Thaksin's administration, and now are looking for a cleaner, more modern government that can lead the country once the military has stepped aside. But, given what happened to Thaksin on September 19 last year, it is also clear that the military is not going to become an apolitical player any time soon.

WATCHPOINT: Thaksin is determined to remain in the public eye, which his bid to buy Manchester City Football Club clearly shows. But other political actors are emerging, and they, not Thaksin, seem destined to be the country's next leaders. At the same time, the military remains a formidable force, and they are likely to be keeping a watchful eye on the politicians even in future.

This article first appeared in Asian Analysis, July, 2007

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