Saturday, December 22, 2007
ELECTION EVE IN THAILAND
the two main party leaders held their final rallies in Bankgok last night, appealing to the country's 45.6 million voters for a chance to lead the next government. Tomorrow's general election will take place 15 months after the army put an end to the "caretaker" leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra, and to the long political stalemate he had instigated, by mounting a widely popular coup d'etat while he was abroad.
The coup, certainly a setback in Thailand's democratic journey, is not nearly as popular as it once was. But hopes that election day will resolve the political crisis are also dwindling. The general consensus is that the result, whichever party wins, will be a weak coalition that will be lucky to survive a year. But multi-party coalition it will be, with Thaksin's revamped "Thais Love Thais" Party -- now known as the "People's Power Party" -- leading in national polls but not likely to win a majority of the 480 parliamentary seats.
Whatever the outcome, it's looking like an exciting election day. Passions are high, and generally revolve around the man who is missing (Thaksin is said to be relocating to Hong Kong, where he'll follow the results). Since the coup, he has been looking in mainly from London, where he issues videos and communiques to his followers. (He's also alighted in Singapore, Bali, his ancestral region of China, Australia and Beijing.) His party has been disbanded by court order, a result of their shenanigans during the election of April 2006 (an election which was itself determined to have been illegally conducted), while he and 110 other party executives were prohibited from playing in politics for five years. A number of these have gone on to create new parties which will participate tomorrow (I'm not really sure how that works).
But it has been a rather lacklustre campaign. The People's Power Party has focused on its major plank, which is to bring Thaksin home. After that it's a generalized fantasy of the brilliant leader advising the new government and helping to solve all the country's problems, passing out lots of cash and otherwise comforting his beloved brothers and sisters who miss him so much. At the big PPP rally last night, which drew over 18,000 according to Bangkok Post, one of the party's top officials (and well known corrupt figure) Chalerm Yubamrung declared that if they win, Thaksin will come home on Valentine's Day!
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva addressed only about 2,000 supporters at their rally last night, and he has also pledged to invite Thaksin to return home. I think most people would like to see him come back and try to clear his name -- he stands charged in several corruption cases facing up to 26 years if convicted. That doesn't include the case of at least 2,500 extra-judicial killings during his famous "stamp out drugs" program early in his rule. I for one would love to see some charges brought against him on that score.
More than fifteen years ago, in another struggle to resist military dictatorship, I recall watching Abhisit when he was the youngest member of parliament, on the stage at Sanam Luang with the other pro-democracy leaders and thinking, "This guy is going to be PM someday." Maybe it will be this time, and maybe not, but I still think so. The Democrats are not in the bag for the military, but surely the military leaders are hoping for Democrat success tomorrow. They were in opposition to Thaksin, and so the perception that they have benefited from the coup is unavoidable. But to claim them as being "coup-lovers" is a gross misstatement of fact. As flawed as the Democrats might be, no other existing party has prodded Thailand toward pluralist democratic principles more than they have.
And no figure has done more to reverse that journey than the former tycoon-in-chief Thaksin Shinawatra. If the majority of Thais want Thaksin home, he should come home. And stand trial like any other accused criminal. As I wrote earlier, I want him to answer for his role in those thousands of murders of his own countrymen and women.
The almost funny part of this, is Thaksin's proxy in the upcoming proceedings. To have Samak, of all people, at the head of anything with "people's power" in its name, must be somebody's idea of a sick joke.
Samak Sudaravej is usually described (especially in foreign press reports, which love it when they can use such epithets) as an "ultra-rightist." The former Bangkok governor is also under the corruption clouds of procurement scandals during his tenure -- probably enough to have him dubbed a "right-winger" in journalist parlance, but not really enough for the "ultra" bit. That comes from his history in the 1970's, where he was believed to have played a big role in whipping up the shocking hysteria that resulted in terrible violence against protesting students.
Many deaths later, Samak served the military dictatorship which took over absolute rule, and many of those students fled to the jungle to join the Communist Party. Some of those student leaders eventually decided they didn't like communism, found their way to a new political home in the '90's with the popular ascetic (and also former Bangkok governor) Chamlong Srimuang, and later blended into Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai group. Now they find themselves led by their arch enemy of 30 years ago. As the world turns.
Samak is not ashamed to be the proxy for the disgraced Thaksin, and in fact responds to the question with an innocent, "What's wrong with that?" A famous video put together by Thaksin supporters is even more forthright, opening with a simple statement of fact: "Vote for one, get one free." After denigrating other national politicians by striving to tie them to evil dictatorship, the video comes right out with it. "Vote for Samak Sundaravej, and you will have Thaksin Shinawatra."
It doesn't get clearer than that. Samak refused to participate in any debate with Abhisit, who had extended many offers. His refusal was likely a party decision, as Samak is chiefly known by the size of his mouth -- which usually opens wide enough for both feet.
Through the latter part of 2005 and building in early 2006, massive street protests demanded the resignation of Thaksin. His farce of the April election, and the cheating of his party, led to the entire procedure being declared illegal. He solemnly promised to retire from politics, then quietly took over again as "caretaker." There was no parliament in existence -- the previous one having been dissolved, and replaced by ... nobody. More protests grew against Thaksin's stubbornness, and there was no political solution that anyone could see. Open conflict seemed certain. The Thaksin government was still in place, with no mandate and no parliament. And no sign of going anywhere anytime soon. How long the situation might have remained in stasis in anyone's guess, but the country could not have endured such a "hung system" for long.
It got a "reboot" in September '06, most people were relieved, and now it's time to get moving again. Preferences are about to be loaded tomorrow, but the process will need to continue. Probably some better and more reliable software would be in order, rather than just re-branding the old stuff with a new name.
But whatever happens tomorrow, Thais should be proud that they've been able to get from military coup, to a competent civilian government (even HM the King thinks so), to creation and public ratification of a new constitution, to a freely elected parliament and government, in just 15 months. I don't know of any other country which has ever pulled that off.
Just look to our neighbour, Burma, for other possibilities.