In less than a month, Thais will go to the polls and either throw out the government that has ruled without a mandate for over two years, or give current prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva the stamp of popular approval he’s been lacking. While the incumbent Democrat Party still seems to be ahead in the polls, a plurality of voters remain undecided, and the most dynamic candidate at the moment is undoubtedly Yingluck Shinawatra. At the head of the ticket for the challenger Pheu Thai party, Yingluck also happens to be the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup (Thailand’s 18th in the past century).
When the media talks about Yingluck, there are a few points they never fail to hit: she is rumored to be a “clone” of Thaksin, she has very little political experience, and she’s very “telegenic” (read: hot for a 43 year-old). She’s a businesswoman by trade, having run a telecom company formerly held by her brother. Also like her brother, she’s had her share of legal difficulties, with accusations of insider trading and perjury chasing her around.
And yet, despite her (considerable) wealth and pedigree of power, she (again like brother Thaksin) is a populist. Her campaign platform calls for lowering the corporate tax rate, but it also calls for raising the minimum wage, improving access to education, and institution of price controls that would benefit the poor.
That peculiarity is at the heart of the broader contradiction in Thai politics. You have the yellow shirts– they’re urban, establishment middle class, tending to include the military, the media, and (quietly) the monarchy– who support the conservative, stable, status quo elements in Thai politics. And you have the red shirts– mostly working class, mostly rural, devoted followers of billionaire media & telco mogul Thaksin– who have won every nationwide referendum in he past decade, and yet have been pushed out repeatedly by coups and court rulings.
Thaksin swept into power in a landslide in 2001, and his government was the first to achieve reelection in Thailand’s seven decades of democracy with another big win in 2005. A year later, he was ousted out by the military and the yellow shirted coalition, who saw him as corrupt (probably), a challenge to the power of the Thai monarchy (maybe) and indulging in economic policy too redistributionist for their liking. A free election was contested in 2007, and the winner was was thrown out less than a year later by the constitutional court for being paid to host a cooking TV show while serving as PM. Then came Thaksin’s brother-in-law, who lasted three months before the court intervened again, and dissolved the whole party. Since then, it’s been Abhisit, ruling courtesy of a parliamentary vote.
Thaksin is still in exile, but remains the dominant political figure in the country– and there’s obviously not a whole lot of guile in having your little sister run in your stead. And so the the election is breaking along political lines identical to those that have divided the country throughout the past five years. In 2008 and again in 2010, these divisions resulted in protests that closed the airport, shut down parts of Bangkok, and left dozens dead– mostly red shirts at the hands of the police. It will be a hard fought battle once again: notwithstanding the pleasing binary I offered in the first sentence above, in all likelihood, neither party will win an outright majority of the 500 seats in parliament, and whoever emerges with the plurality will get a shot at coalition-building.
From the perspective of a democratically-minded observer, it’s rather galling the way the red shirts seem to keep winning elections and yet keep finding themselves disenfranchised at the hands of the entrenched elites. And Yingluck does make an appealing candidate on many levels, though it’s impossible to see her except in Thaksin’s enormous and problematic shadow.
But I won’t pick sides on a policy or political level; the real victory will come if Thailand can come out of this election peaceful and unified. If you think American politics are polarized, you ain’t seen nothin. Many are already forecasting another round of protests and violence regardless of who comes out on top– if not yet another outright coup attempt. It’s unlikely that a political chasm so deep will just disappear, but hopefully both sides will find a way to bridge it and assent to a government by the people. For five years, Thailand has been governed without popular consent and if this election yields only further acrimony and unrest, the country will surely backslide further in the coming years.