Published on August 31, 2007
Thailand looks set to hold a general election on December 23 after the Surayud government and the Election Commission agreed on the date. Apparently every effort has been made to ensure the nationwide poll will be free and fair. The new Constitution, which is supposedly an improvement on the 1997 People's Charter, is now in force. Many see the wafer-thin victory of the Yes camp in the Constitution referendum as an ominous sign that the polarisation of Thai politics is continuing.
Attempts by the junta and interim government to achieve reconciliation and thereby normalise national politics has failed. Thai society remains split along the socio-economic divide: between the have's and the have-nots. Thailand's economic and social development has come to a point where the trickle-down economic effect works less and less effectively to close the yawning gap between rich and poor.
Better educated people in cities are much better positioned to take advantage of the benefits of the modern economy and know that there isn't enough to go around for poorly educated people in the countryside. It is known that the reason deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and politicians who remain loyal to him continue to be popular among rural people is the lack of alternative political parties that take their needs and concerns seriously. Thaksin and his now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party appeared to have done so before.
It must be admitted that although Thaksin manipulated rural folk with his many populist policies that went against fiscal discipline and sound governance, some, like the universal healthcare scheme, did strike a responsive chord among rural constituents as being obviously pro-poor.
It is easy for the urban middle-class to dismiss all of Thaksin's populist policies as unprincipled and something that the rural masses should be weaned off of. They also are quick to point to the corruption-prone patronage system that defined the relationship between Thaksin and rural folk.
But rural folk also have reason to resent the same corruption-prone patronage system that now exists between the middle-class and the military, which they see as a conspiracy to hold them down. Besides, members of the Thai middle-class are also notorious for their fickleness and opportunism.
It must be pointed out that most middle-class people were staunch supporters of Thaksin throughout most of his more than five years as PM. They continued to support him long after evidence began to emerge of his corruption and misrule.
The middle-class only rose up against Thaksin after it became clear that the cost of keeping him in power was too high as it weighed down on the country's economic performance. They abandoned Thaksin only when it was no longer convenient or profitable to support him. When the military staged the coup to overthrow Thaksin, the middle-class hailed the coup-makers as white knights coming to the rescue. It was as if Thailand's democracy had a reset button.
Almost one year after the military took over, we are now looking toward the December 23 election as an important landmark in restoring the country to full democracy. But no one can say with any certainty if that will be the case.
That is because the underlying factors have not changed. The middle-class can be expected to do its part in voting for parties known to have opposed Thaksin, like the Democrats. But the rural masses will vote for the devil they know - that is, political parties made up of, or financed by, Thaksin loyalists.
Despite the fact that Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party was disbanded by the Constitution Tribunal for electoral fraud, Thaksin's power of patronage remains intact. The upcoming election will become a battlefield, a proxy war in which the military will do everything to prevent Thaksin from staging a triumphant comeback through fear of revenge. And Thaksin wants to do just that.
Money politics is the name of the game in rural constituencies and will determine who will form the next government. Unless we have effective measures to curtail the corruption-prone patronage system and to combat vote buying and other electoral fraud, the future of democracy in this country will be far from secure, regardless of who wins the election.