Published on December 27, 2007
At the height of the political crisis in the months leading to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's eventual downfall, fears that the confrontation between the two groups could turn violent were real. The military coup that finished off the corruption-prone Thaksin government was followed by a 15-month suspension of Thailand's democracy, a series of political reforms and an unsuccessful attempt to bring about reconciliation.
In a way, the failure of the military-appointed Surayud government to resolve the urban-rural conflict is understandable. The rural people never saw the interim Surayud administration as an honest broker. The outcome of the December 23 general election confirms that the polarisation in Thai politics continues to be a major problem.
The pro-Thaksin People Power Party (PPP) emerged as the biggest winner in the election, capturing more than 230 seats in the 480-member House of Representatives, thanks mainly to the loyal support of people in the poverty-stricken countryside in the Northeast and the North. The Democrat Party, which has the strong support of the anti-Thaksin urban middle class, especially in Bangkok, was the runner-up with some 160 House seats. It remains to be seen whether the PPP will muster enough support from a few small- and medium-sized parties to form a coalition government. The Democrat Party has announced it is prepared to take the lead in forming an alternative coalition government if the PPP fails to do so in the coming weeks.
Whichever party ends up taking power, its priority should be to make an honest effort to resolve the debilitating conflict between the urban middle class and the rural masses. If left to fester, such a conflict will prolong the political uncertainty, and this will further dampen the country's economic and social development, hurting all Thais regardless of their socio-economic standing or political affiliation.
The key policy for the new government, which will take over from the interim government and the military junta either in January or February next year, should be to do no harm. The party that is to lead the coalition government must make it its principle to become the government of all the people and to serve in the country's best interests. In a way, it is impossible for any government not to follow this principle because Thailand, as a political, economic and social unit, is indivisible. The political, economic and social lives of the middle class and the rural masses are so interconnected and interdependent that they share a common destiny, for better or for worse.
To improve the chances of success in bringing about national reconciliation, the new government must refrain from the kind of irresponsible demagoguery that Thaksin had resorted to during his last months in power, when a series of corruption scandals galvanised the urban middle class to rise up to challenge his leadership.
Generally speaking, there was not that much of a conflict between the middle class and the rural masses to begin with. Both groups wanted their politicians and the government to be responsive to their needs. They also wanted to make sure the government's policies were coherent and designed in a way that both met their immediate needs as well as enhanced national development over the long term.
The urban-rural competition over the share of the national wealth is only natural given the fact that rapid industrialisation and urbanisation has transformed Thailand into a half-urban/half-rural country. Ultimately, what is good for rural people is also good for urban people, and vice versa. Competition for national resources is not a zero-sum game where one side's gain is another's loss.
What we need from the new government is well-conceived policies with coherent national development strategies, sound governance, public accountability and fiscal responsibility.