Thailand’s Generals Get a Slap in the Face

Polling station in Ban Khung Taphao, Uttaradit Province

In the first election since the army seized power by force in September 2006, Thais in the country’s poor northeast region used ballots to strike back, propelling a party aligned with deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra to a strong victory.

The election highlighted a deep urban-rural divide and undermined claims of popular legitimacy made by royalist generals in the aftermath of their putsch. The northeast has been Thaksin’s stronghold since he came to power in 2001, and the results this time confirmed that his star is undiminished in the area.

Preliminary results showed the People Power Party, formed by members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party after a military-appointed court dissolved it last May, won 224 seats in the 480-seat legislature, better than previous expectations and just 17 seats short of an outright majority.

The main opposition Democrat party came in a strong second with a higher-than-expected 166 seats. Smaller parties performed poorly, with Chat Thai winning 42 seats, Pua Paendin 25 seats, Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana 11 seats, Matchimathippitai seven seats and Pracharaj five seats.

The Election Commission will take up to 30 days to certify the results, but its chairman said the official results could be known by early January. Many analysts are expecting the commission to disqualify a certain number of candidates, which could slightly change the outcome.

All eyes will now turn to post-election horse trading. The PPP has vowed to form a coalition government headed by its chairman Samak Sundaravej, an outspoken critic of alleged coup architect Prem Tinsulanonda, the former army chief and prime minister who leads the king’s advisory council. The military and Prem were reportedly hoping that the Democrats could head an anti-PPP coalition government, but that could now prove difficult.

“Of course I will be prime minister,” Samak said at a press conference on Sunday night after most of the votes were counted. “We received nearly half of the votes. It’s normal all around the world for the leader of the party that wins the most votes to be prime minister.”

Reports surfaced Sunday night that Prem summoned Chat Thai leader Banharn Silpa-Archa and Pua Paendin chief Suvit Khunkitti to his house to discuss the results. Late Sunday night, Banharn said Chat Thai and Pua Paendin had still not decided whether they would join a PPP-led coalition government.

Pua Paendin, a party supported by Prem and the military, performed poorly. Suvit appeared unlikely to be elected in his constituency, complicating proposals to have him step in as a compromise choice for prime minister.

The election results show that Thaksin’s support remains solid in the country’s heavily populated northeast region, which benefited greatly from his government’s policies of cheap health care, village loans and agricultural price support. PPP won 96 seats in the region, or 71%, with Thai Rak Thai offshoots taking most of the rest.

The Democrats won only six seats in the northeast, but won 49, or about 88% of the vote, in its traditional southern stronghold. The country’s oldest political party also won 27 of 36 seats in Bangkok, but PPP suspected some irregularities and vowed to investigate.

“The outcome from the exit polls [in Bangkok] is different from the actual outcome,” Samak told reporters. “It’s a little bit strange.”

The Democrats have made significant gains since getting pummeled by Thai Rak Thai in 2005, but overall Thaksin’s support remains solid. Two years ago, Thai Rak Thai won a record 18.9 million votes, or 64% of the vote with a turnout of 72%.

In the boycotted April 2006 election, Thai Rak Thai still won 16.4 million votes, or 61% of the total vote with a turnout of 65%. This time around, with turnout at about 70%, PPP won 13.2 million votes. But when combined with splinter parties loosely allied with Thaksin that number jumps to about 16.4 million, or half of the 32.2 million votes cast.

“The PPP government, if it does get formed, won’t be as strong as the Thai Rak Thai government,” said Giles Ungpakorn, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University. “The new measures in the constitution and the security bill are likely to make it a weaker government. Things are in flux. We have to wait and see how the two sides, the junta and the PPP, react. Will they compromise or engage in further confrontation?”

Although popular with the rural masses, Thaksin was arguably the most polarizing prime minister in Thai history. He neutered independent agencies and arrogantly sought to intimidate the media, particularly through multi-million baht libel lawsuits.

When he called a snap election in February 2006 to silence criticism of his family’s $2 billion tax-free sale of Shin Corp to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, he knew he would win. The Democrat party knew it would lose and boycotted the election, ostensibly in the belief that Thaksin would be forced to make constitutional changes that would strengthen the checks and balances and lead to a better democracy.

What happened instead was a prolonged battle between Thaksin and royalists in the bureaucracy, judiciary and military that ended up claiming the liberal 1997 constitution as a casualty and turning back the clock on democratic progress.

After the king called the April 2006 election “undemocratic,” the courts quickly voided the poll. Judges swiftly tossed the former election commissioners in jail under dubious legal circumstances, and a new one was set up to oversee an election in November 2006.

But Thaksin’s enemies knew he would win yet again, and they staged a coup in September 2006 before that could happen. Angered by Thaksin’s abuses, many academics, observers and journalists were optimistic that the coup group would right the perceived wrongs of Thaksin and usher in a more representative democracy.

It didn’t take long before that dream was shattered. The coup group rewrote the constitution to put a straight jacket on politicians and strengthen the power of non-elected judges and appointed senators. In the meantime, it set up a court that dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party and enforced an ex post facto law banning the party’s 111 executives from politics for five years.

The coup leaders used state power for political ends, manipulated the rule of law to suit their needs and kept martial law in place in certain provincial areas up until Election Day. With the interim government’s popularity sinking, the military-appointed legislature waited until a few days before the election before quickly passing 64 laws as a parting gift to anyone who still held illusions that the junta respected democracy.

One of those laws passed at the last minute was the Internal Security Act, which gives the military sweeping powers to detain people, wiretap phones and declare emergency rule. Political parties, editorialists and activists urged the National Legislative Assembly to leave the bill for an elected government to consider, but to no avail.

The junta may have miscalculated by waiting so long after the coup to have the election, as it allowed Thai Rak Thai to regroup under PPP and made rural folks yearn for the days when Thaksin was in power and the economy was stronger.

The junta is banking on the new constitution and other laws it wrote to keep subsequent governments weak and politicians in check. The military leaders repeatedly demonized politicians in the run-up to Sunday’s election. In the face of criticism that the legislature should stop passing laws with an election looming, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said: “An elected assembly sometimes could be dictated to by the policies of political parties. But the present [legislature] cannot be. Its members are very much their own men.”

Given those sentiments, it’s not surprising that the conflict between the junta and Thaksin is more likely to be solved in a backroom that through an election. The political chaos of the past year has taken an economic toll on the country, with private investment dropping considerably and the economy overall not living up to its potential.

“In fact, Thaksin and [coup leader] Sonthi [Boonyaratglin] talk together all the time, trying to resolve these problems,” claimed a Thaksin aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. “They know the conflict hurts everyone, so they are talking together to set up a story to make Thailand have a political soft landing. This is the real game; the election is a low-level game.”

“The most difficult part is coming up with something they can tell the public,” the aide added. “They need a good story to tell people so that Thaksin can come back and everyone can be assured that everything is still in the legal process.”

Observers say the signs are encouraging. Thaksin and the PPP have faith that the new army commander, Anupong Paochinda, will reposition the military to be more neutral and stay out of politics. Samak said as much in his press conference, calling him a “good guy” who vowed never to stage a coup.

Part of a deal for Thaksin’s return, the aide said, would be to dissolve a special investigation into the former premier’s business dealings and move those cases to a normal prosecutor. Most charges could then fade away, he said, but a few would be kept to punish Thaksin and keep the public happy.

Thaksin would then need to reaffirm his loyalty to the royal family, which came under question in the run-up to the coup. Thaksin’s perceived threat to King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s popularity was a prime reason the generals booted him out of power.

Although Thaksin has spent the bulk of the past 15 months in London and Hong Kong, his influence is pervasive. His purchase of the Manchester City Football Club has ensured he stays in the headlines, and his deep pockets endear him to Thai lawmakers.

“I don’t think Thaksin needs to be prime minister; he’s beyond that now but he still likes to control the game,” the aide said. “He still wants to have influence in both the political and economic sphere. Remember he still needs to get his money back.”

Any deal would also have to ensure that neither Thaksin nor the PPP retaliate against the military. The party has said it won’t do so, but it’s unclear if the generals would trust them.

“The military is not quite sure that Thaksin would commit to what they agree to,” the aide said. “Nobody can guarantee anything.”

Many expect the next government’s tenure to be short. The PPP will try to put Samak up as prime minister, but if that triggers a public backlash the party may offer the top spot to a coalition partner. They could align with every party except the Democrats. In a testimony to the fickle nature of Thai politics, the group seems certain to link up with Matchimathippitai, which is led by key anti-Thaksin financier Prachai Leophairatana, who was not elected.

If the Prem-linked Pua Paendin joins the coalition it may signal a détente. Chat Thai may also join. Both parties saw their bargaining positions weaken considerably with the poorer-than-expected results.

As for the state of Thai democracy, the next year could represent a collective step forward or simply more of the same. Certainly it would be hard for the military to justify another coup based on high-minded principles of democracy, particularly after the debacle of the past year.

Some analysts believe this election may finally persuade the elites that supported the coup to accept the reality of a changed political landscape. But that process won’t be easy.

“I think what we’re seeing over these past couple of years is that the Thai elite has become disillusioned with democracy because Thaksin opened up the possibility that the poor can have some say in politics, and they don’t like that,” said Giles from Chulalongkorn University. “To develop democracy, civil society will have to push against the Thai elite. It’s going to take some time to educate the elites about the benefits of democracy.”