November 5, 2007
THAILAND : Politics
Worries for democracy as Thailand readies for post-coup poll
Manifestos are being prepared, candidates readied and rhetoric polished as Thailand prepares for campaigning ahead of an election on December 23 aimed at returning democracy after last year's coup. But as the ink dries on campaign posters ahead of candidate registration this Wednesday, analysts warn that the polls -- the first since Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in September 2006 -- will not usher in a new era of democracy in the kingdom.
Instead, there will likely be a scramble for power in the vacuum left by Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, a dominating force in Thai politics which was dissolved after the country's generals pushed the twice-elected prime minister from power.
In the absence of a charismatic figure or party around which to build a new government, money and influence will again become the political currency. "We've gone back to money politics -- political parties jockeying for power, grouping and regrouping without any consideration for policies," said Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a politics lecturer at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
The tone for disappointment was already set in August with the approval at referendum of a post-coup constitution that critics warn rolls back democratic reforms included in the previous charter. Any elections held under the new charter, they say, will likely install a weak coalition government while returning real authority to traditional power centers of the military, the bureaucracy and the royal palace.
All three institutions have played key roles in Thailand's turbulent political history, which has seen 24 prime ministers and 18 coups over the last 75 years. The mood worsened further with the approval last month of draconian campaign rules that virtually stamped out political debate by severely curtailing candidates' electioneering ahead of the polls.
Although the restrictions, which also sought to control media coverage of candidates, have since been loosened, they still allow Thailand's ruling junta to cast its long shadow over the process. "The rules are ridiculous ... they decrease the ability of political parties to put forward policies," said Chulalongkorn University's Giles.
Regulations over details like poster sizes and leafleting will leave politicians vulnerable to being hauled up over petty offenses by the Election Commission, said Chris Baker, the author of a number of books on Thai politics.
With penalties ranging from fines to jail time and party dissolution, the authorities could target parties less sympathetic to the ruling junta and its appointed civilian administration, Baker said. Thaksin's TRT, which rose to power in 2001 after defeating the kingdom's oldest political machine the Democrat Party in elections, is widely credited with transforming Thai politics by forging a unified, national policy.
Decision-making had previously been dominated by numerous political organizations based around regional allegiances -- an environment that now threatens to return in a field cluttered with new parties, some formed from the remnants of TRT.
"These are basically local politicians, they don't give a damn about the ideology," said Baker. Also hanging over the polls is the fear of outright interference by Thailand's military-run government.
The most prominent party of Thaksin supporters to emerge following the TRT's demise -- the People Power Party, or PPP -- claims to have unearthed classified documents detailing the junta's plan to use a media smear campaign to sabotage their chances in the December polls. Thailand's generals have done little to hide their contempt for Thaksin, who was ousted over allegations of corruption and other abuses of power.
But analysts say the PPP, running on a platform almost identical to Thaksin's populist policies, stands to win a significant number of the 480 parliament seats up for grabs. The other front-runner is the Democrat Party, which has strong support in Bangkok and the south, but has failed to connect with Thaksin's core voters in the populous, poor northeast.
The end result could be a country under the guidance of a shaky coalition government of unwilling partners. "Obviously, (the military) do not wish the PPP to be in any coalition -- other parties I think they can accommodate," said Gothom Arya, director of Mahidol University's research centre on peace-building.