FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Thai election result offers hope for the future
, July 23, 2011
Five years after the Thai military overthrew the democratically elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra and forced him into exile, the party led by his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has decisively won the general election, defeating the Democrat Party which was installed by the military.
Her Phue Thai Party won 265 of the 500 seats in parliament, but she has decided to give her government a stronger mandate by including several minor parties in her coalition government, giving the government a decisive 300 seats in the next parliament.
The result is a striking rebuff to the military forces which have exercised a great deal of power in Thailand for decades, while professing their loyalty to the popular King of Thailand whom they have effectively controlled.
With a population of about 70 million,Thailand is an important nation in South-East Asiawhose stability is important for the whole region. It is also strategically placed to face the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, both of which are of great importance to Australia.
Thailand is a country torn by deep divisions between, on the one hand, the mass of the people who are part of the rural poor and those eking out a living in the cities, and, on the other hand, the more prosperous urban middle-class.
The Phue Thai Party, successor to Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party, represents the rural and urban poor. The Democrat Party represents the urban middle-class and the army.
As a result of the election, Yingluck Shinawatra is set to be the first female prime minister of Thailand, and will announce her cabinet within a week or so.
Her supporters included the Red Shirt protesters who conducted mass protests for weeks in the capital Bangkok last year, demanding the return of democratic rule. The protests were violently suppressed by the army and police, leaving hundreds of people dead.
However, they had the positive effect of forcing the Democrat Party to a new election.
Thailand faces many problems, not least of which is the growing gap between the urban elites who have prospered as Thailand has embarked on a process of economic modernisation and industrialisation, and the rural poor, who comprise the vast majority of the population.
One immediate problem is that the defeated Democrats are seeking a direction from the Thai Election Commission to ban the Phue Thai Party, on the grounds that some of its leading members were activists in Thaksin’s party, which was banned.
A further Democrat challenge is being made against Yingluck, for having bribed people with noodles during the election campaign.
Although the election commission is dominated by Democrat supporters, it said nothing about these issues during the election campaign, and any decision against the winning party would simply provoke more protests and, by wrecking the government, reduce the country to anarchy — the last thing that is needed.
The election outcome may also pave the way for a resolution of the tangled dispute over a Buddhist temple, located almost exactly on the Thai-Cambodia border. The Preah Vihear temple, dating back 13 centuries, has been part of the territory of both Thailand and Cambodia at different times in the past.
It was subject to an adjudication by the International Court of Justice in 1959, which awarded the temple to Cambodia, a decision which Thailand refused to accept. Diplomatic relations were severed, and periodic military disputes have broken out along the border, the most recent being this year.
The Cambodian Government of Hun Sen appointed Thaksin Shinawatra as its economic adviser in 2009, and publicly opposed the military-backed Democrat government.
A new government in Thailand will be able to make a fresh start in addressing this issue.
The other issues facing the new Thai government are economic. Those who voted for the new government have real expectations that Yingluck will address the disparity between rich and poor.
Among the campaign promises which Yingluck made was a new rice mortgage system based on a guaranteed rice price, free wireless Internet connectivity (“Wi-Fi”) in the cities, and tablet computers for all primary school pupils.
The test for Yingluck will be whether she is able to manage the expectations of her voting base, in a way which is economically responsible. Paradoxically, her brother Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made millionaire who comes from a wealthy family inThailand, will be of considerable help here.
Thaksin, who has a doctorate in criminal justice from Sam Houston State University in Houston,Texas, made his money through a cable TV venture and, later, a computer data networking service, which evolved into the largest mobile phone operator in Thailand.
After he turned to politics, he became the first Thai prime minister to serve a full term, and introduced reforms to the economy, public health, education, energy, social order, drug suppression and international relations. He gained two re-election victories and, by reducing rural poverty, galvanised the rural poor who became his support base.