OPINION: Thaksin, Asia’s original populist

Karim Raslan -- Ceritalah ASEAN

Posted at Mar 11 2019 08:02 PM

Thailand’s young voters look to the future, not past

One man has dominated Thai politics for well over twenty years; and it is not the current monarch, King Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. Separately, the hapless, but essentially well-meaning military leader Prayuth Chan-ocha looks set to be a mere footnote in the kingdom’s contemporary history.

Loathed by the elite, Thaksin Shinawatra, the brash Chiang Mai-born, telecom billionaire-turned-politician (and Prime Minister between 2001-2006) remains a Svengali-like presence despite being ousted and later effectively exiled in 2008.

Indeed, political parties with his imprimatur – whether it’s the Pheu Thai or its Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power Party predecessors—have won every national election since 2001. For the past eleven years, the 69-year-old has never publicly set foot in the kingdom and yet his presence – or shall we say, “absence”–remains the defining element in Thai political life.

How and why does this man – a mere commoner – exert such a strong grip on the public imagination? 

Much of his allure is rooted in the ground-breaking policies (dubbed “Thaksinomics”) that he introduced during his tenure as Premier. 

Winning power just three years after the crushing 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, Thaksin entered Government House with a bang – a populist bang – reinvigorating a devastated economy, so much so that GDP growth shot up to 6.15% within a year of his arrival in office.

Focusing on the long-overlooked rural population, Thaksin instituted a huge microcredit system – the One Million Baht, One Village Fund Program. Moreover, a “30 Baht Policy” (Thailand’s first universal healthcare program) transformed the lives of farmers who to this day remain his most loyal support base – especially in the vote-rich regions of the North and the Northeast (aka the Isan). Other leaders have since tried to emulate Thaksin’s populist model, but none have been able to match his enormous success.

Still, with Thailand fast-approaching its first contested elections in eight years, even the mercurial, Dubai-based leader is facing headwinds. A redrafted Constitution further empowers conservative and military elements in the Parliament while undermining any democratic outcome. 

Thaksin has tried to fight back. In a surprise move, one of his political vehicles, the Thai Raksa Chart (TRC) Party, sought to nominate the King’s elder sister – Princess Ubolratana – as its candidate for Prime Minister. 

However, the extremely controversial manoeuvre drew a swift rebuke from the Palace. Needless to say, her candidacy was subsequently rejected. Compounding the setbacks, the TRC was dissolved earlier this week by the Constitutional Court.

But memories are short, all the more so in the era of social media. 

Nirada, a shopkeeper based in Phitsanulok, feels disillusioned under the current junta administration. Team Ceritalah

“My generation does not have strong links with Thaksin,” says Nirada when asked about her thoughts of the ex-Prime Minister, “we were too young to understand politics back then”. Team Ceritalah

Economic growth has remained stagnant under junta rule – a far cry from Thaksin’s five years of constant growth. Team Ceritalah

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, leader of the Future Forward Party, is slated to capture many young votes in the upcoming election. Courtesy of cfr.org

So, while many ordinary Thais, such as Nirada Inruang, a 24-year-old mother-of-one and boutique-owner from the city of Phitsanulok in the central plains dismiss General Prayuth, she also finds it difficult to be enthusiastic about the exiled billionaire. 

She explains: “I won’t be voting for Thaksin; my generation struggles to relate to him. We were too young to understand politics back when he was Prime Minister. I was only 15 years old when he was exiled. Handing out money won’t win our support. It doesn’t work that way anymore.” 

Instead, she’s determined to cast her vote for the Future Forward Party (or FFP) and its handsome 40-year-old, leader – Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, better known as “Ake” (loosely, “Dad”). 

Nirada is one of seven million first-time voters in Thailand – a group that has become increasingly politically-aware since Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, was ousted from power in 2014. 

Living through a period of low growth and limited opportunities, many Thais have grown frustrated by the failures of the government to deliver substantive changes. For Nirada, who had hoped to become a pharmacist, the future just doesn’t look so bright and the current military administration may well pay the price for disappointing the people.

Moreover, most millennial voters have been turned off by the once-existential struggle between the “red shirt” and “yellow shirt” forces that dominated Thailand (and especially Bangkok) in the first half of the decade.

Meanwhile, in a manner that seems remarkably Thaksin-like, Ake has generated a remarkable degree of excitement. His team and he have been adept at using popular culture – racking up a huge following through the viral #fahrakpor – a line borrowed from a popular soap opera which means “Fah loves Dad”. 

In the year since its founding, the FFP been zeroing-in on what Thai voters want. They have called for greater decentralisation of power, policies that would eradicate (or at least minimize) income inequality and a slashing of the defence budget.

This, coupled with the dissolution of the TRC, might well result in the migration of voters to the FFP, particularly since “Ake” and his party represent such a dynamic and positive political message.

However, Thaksin’s bedrock of support in the North and Northeast remains unshaken and his remaining Pheu Thai franchise looks set to reap a considerable windfall in terms of votes as well.

So, while FFP’s “Billionaire Prai” looks set to enthuse young voters, Thaksin remains the man to beat. 

Of course, given the Thai elite’s fondness for suppressing the popular will, the upcoming election could well prove to be little more than a damp squib as a cabal of military, royal and bureaucratic leaders will certainly be moving behind the scenes to thwart the popular vote. 

A Mahathir Mohamad-like return for Thaksin could hence be unlikely. 

However, the 24 March polls may well witness (through some elite meddling, no doubt) the emergence of a Thaksin clone – the charismatic “Ake” with his upbeat, reformist agenda.

Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.