The Thai junta is struggling to thwart Thaksin Shinawatra’s electoral hopes. But being robbed of victory may be a blessing in disguise
Illustration by Claudio Munoz
LIKE Arnold Schwarzenegger battling the indestructible, shape-shifting cyborg in “Terminator 2”, the generals who staged Thailand’s coup in September 2006 keep blasting at Thaksin Shinawatra’s party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), only to see it recoalesce and keep chasing them. The party regrouped after the coup, despite the generals’ hopes that it would crumble on losing power. Then, in May, a tribunal created by the junta ordered TRT‘s dissolution, barring Mr Thaksin and 110 other party officials from politics. However, it has simply morphed into a new group, the People’s Power Party (PPP), with the same popular policies but a new front-man, Samak Sundaravej, a ferocious right-winger.
Though some factions have abandoned the new party, it is still expected to win more seats than any other in the general election, to be held on December 23rd. At TRT‘s former headquarters, now the PPP‘s, Jakrapob Penkair, a party spokesman, sips hot chocolate from a cup emblazoned with the TRT logo, as he explains why they chose Mr Samak instead of a more emollient front-man: “We want a tough guy. Why not? It’s a war!”
That Mr Samak is an arch-royalist also helps, says Mr Jakrapob. The generals, also close to the palace, accuse Mr Thaksin of showing disrespect to the revered King Bhumibol. Having Mr Samak on board helps counter such smears. A third, unstated, reason is that the royalist Mr Samak is a rival of General Prem Tinsulanonda, the king’s chief adviser and, say Thaksinites, the éminence grise behind the coup.
A PPP win, followed by Mr Thaksin’s vengeful return from exile in Britain, is the generals’ worst nightmare. Would they let it happen? Korn Chatikavanij, a deputy leader of the Democrats—the second-largest party in the last elected parliament—reckons there would be no popular support for another coup. However, this might not stop hardliners from having a try. They have been attempting to scupper the election by whipping up a crisis over a dodgy land purchase by General Surayud Chulanont, the interim prime minister.
Press criticism has forced the army to backtrack on other nefarious schemes, including a proposed law granting it sweeping powers in any future “emergency” of its own choosing. But it continues to do what it can to hobble the PPP‘s chances. It maintains martial law in many of Mr Thaksin’s strongholds in the populous north-east (though this week it was lifted in some districts). The army claims its purpose is to suppress drugs-trafficking and illegal immigration. The PPP says the army has been using martial law as a cover for intimidating its canvassers.
General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who led the coup, has retired as army commander and quit the Council for National Security, as the junta calls itself. But, as he ponders entering politics, he has had himself made deputy prime minister with a brief of ensuring the election’s fairness (sic). Mr Samak has produced a memo—apparently signed by General Sonthi and other junta leaders—discussing plans to undermine support for the PPP and promote army-approved candidates. So far, the council has not denied its authenticity. Having grabbed a big budget increase, the army could probably afford such a campaign.
The election commission has been widely condemned for absurdly stringent new campaign rules, under which candidates risk disqualification for such trivial offences as playing music at their rallies or having posters that are not quite the approved size. This week it agreed to soften the rules. But it will only become clear after the election, when it decides on complaints, how harshly it will enforce them. The commission is ostensibly independent. But it is hard to avoid suspicions that the rules may be applied selectively to eliminate successful PPP candidates.
A new constitution, narrowly passed in a recent referendum, reduces the number of lower-house seats from 500 to 480. The PPP is unlikely to get the crushing 375 seats its predecessor won in the 2005 elections but pundits reckon it could win 180 or more. The Democrats should improve on the 96 seats won in 2005. Mr Korn hopes their promises to continue some TRT policies, such as cheap health care, will win over more voters.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist, says the PPP may come first but be forced into opposition, as the Democrats build a majority by allying with smaller parties. These are mostly an opportunistic rabble of old and new groups, some of which would be just as happy in alliance with the PPP. Two new groups that have gathered some momentum are Puea Pandin (the Motherland Party) and Ruam Jai Thai (Thai Unity), each a curious mixture of ex-Thaksinites and military hard-nuts. Until later this month, when candidates have to register, it will not be clear how many viable contestants each party has—some star politicians are said to be offering themselves to the highest bidder.
Mr Korn argues that Democrat-led governments restored stability in the wake of the last coup, in the early 1990s (which had turned bloody) and after the 1997 Asian economic crisis. But a fractious coalition, struggling with a weak economy, and constantly harried by an angry PPP on the opposition benches, might soon collapse. Mr Thaksin and his party machine—providing they can maintain their air of invincibility—might be happy to let their foes self-destruct before returning, stronger and more determined than ever.