Asia special report: the Thai elections

Date: 08 Aug 2011


From the back of the stage, peering out across the sea of cheering supporters, it felt a bit like Glastonbury – without the rain. Here at Surin, in the northeast of Thailand, around 100,000 people had gathered to welcome Khun Yingluck Shinawatra. A fellow party candidate had rallied the crowd ahead of her appearance with staccato shouts of “Shin-a-what!” bestirring another deafening cheer: “Yingluck! Yingluck! Yingluck!”

The candidate approached the microphone and welcomed the crowd with a cry of “Vote for number one!” with her trademark one-finger wag. This was not hubris: before the election her Pheu Thai (“For Thais”) party had been allocated this number by lottery balls selected by the Elections Commission. But this random act bode well, acting as a harbinger for a successful bid to be Thailand’s first female prime minister.

On the final day of campaigning 70,000 people filled a football stadium in Bangkok for the last PTP rally. Just before the candidate mounted the stage, the heavens came down in a classic Thai monsoon, but the crowd did not flinch: they put on their plastic cover suits, raised their umbrellas and waited for another half an hour.

When Khun Yingluck finally jumped up the steps to the podium, she shunned any attempts to be shielded by umbrellas. Instead she spoke heroically, as the rain ran down her telegenic face, about the need to fix the economy; rising food and energy prices; and for fundamental reconciliation in a country that has seen umpteen coups and many bloody violent clashes on the streets in the past few decades.

Khun Yingluck looks set to be confirmed as prime minister within days. At 44, she is the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the most popular prime minister in the country’s democratic history, telecoms billionaire and former owner of Manchester City football club. She drew much support from his legacy but, as a highly successful company CEO, she has made clear that in government she intends to be very much her own woman.

The backdrop to the general election on July 3rd stems from the coup in September 2006. Thaksin had been the only prime minister to serve a full parliamentary term in Thailand and get re-elected. He was most popular with the rural farmers in the north of the country. A rare politician who actually delivered on his word – creating a culture of entrepreneurship amongst ordinary people, setting up microfinance schemes across the country – a genuine success story of a policy of a “hand-up, not a hand-out”.

Democracy and economic growth flourished under his flagship “Thaksinomics” philosophy; he took on the criminals and the drug barons, and introduced much-needed economic liberal reforms. But his radicalism and popularity put the frighteners up the Establishment, the military and comfortable civil servants who had profited from years of political instability to rule by benign dictatorship. On a visit to the UN, fearing a reshuffle in top military ranks, the generals chose their opportunity to pounce once again and take over “in the national interest”.

Six years on, the country still suffers from those wounds. After the coup, two Thaksin-supporting prime ministers were ousted by the constitutional courts in “judicial coups”. That left a flimsy coalition to be formed by the Democrats led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, the former Eton and Oxford contemporary of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. It was this administration that oversaw the bloody massacre of 92 people on the streets on Bangkok in the spring of 2010, when the military sought to break up demonstrations by Thaksin-supporting Red Shirts. Two journalists were killed and at least one other injured as the Army resorted to live rounds and snipers to disperse the crowds.

Hence the call by Yingluck for reconciliation. “Reconciliation, not revenge” became a byword for her campaign. A political novice until six weeks before polling day, when she was selected by PTP as their prime ministerial candidate, she emphasized throughout that as a woman she is better placed to compromise and seek to make deals in the interests of national stability.

She also rejected claims that there would be an amnesty for her brother Thaksin, who was charged in absentia with corruption by kangaroo courts in Thailand. As part of the reconciliation process, it would be up to an independent, internationally approved committee to examine all claims from all sides of the political divide. There would be no special treatment of anyone. For his part, Thaksin has nobly said he is “in no hurry” to return to his homeland and will be “part of the solution not the problem” for the sake of Thailand’s future.

In the end, Yingluck won a landslide, scooping 265 seats out of 500 in Thailand’s House of Representatives. Even though her party could rule without assistance from other parties, her first move the day after the election was to offer a coalition partnership to other smaller parties to secure a broad church for her first administration. A good and wise start for the new prime minister, already showing signs of compromise.

So what can we expect from Thailand’s first female prime minister?

There are certainly many challenges ahead to heal the divisions within Thailand’s complex political web. The military must be kept onside, and reassured that no reprisals will take place for previous actions. Genuine reconciliation must be sought and all sides must be treated fairly and equally – “Justice for all” was a key campaign message for Yingluck. Another was that the “rule of law” as defined by the British jurisprudence of Lord Justice Bingham must be applied – not rule by law, which was the watchword of the previous administration.

Her other policies were set out in an impressive 2020 Vision document during the campaign, much of which was belated plagiarized by her opponents. She pledged the elimination of poverty, to reduce corporation tax from 30% to 23%, and then to 20% by 2013. The minimum wage would be raised to 300 baht per day ($10 a day) and for university graduates there would be a minimum income of 15,000 baht per month ($500). As expected there were strong measures for the rural farmers, with improved cash flow and loans of up to 70% of expected turnover based on a guaranteed rice price of $500 per tonne.

There will also be free public wi-fi, and tablet computer for every school child, and massive improvements to public transport infrastructure.

These policies will, of course, not be cheap and could significantly dent Thailand’s public finances. But while the country’s GDP is protected by huge foreign investment, her time in office and success will be judged on these Keynesian policies for the domestic economy.

However, provided she can first win the political struggle to maintain stability, balancing the various elite factions within Thailand, there is no reason why the country cannot prosper if there is tolerance, compromise and peace within a truly dynamic Asian economy.

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