A Thai Spring?

BANGKOK – The thunderous results of Thailand’s general election on July 3 will seem familiar to anyone attuned to the political upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa. Entrenched incumbent regimes everywhere are under severe stress from advances in information technology, shifts in demographics, rising expectations, and the obsolescence of Cold War exigencies. In the absence of a willingness and ability to use violent repression, regime survival can be achieved only through concessions, accommodation, and periodic reinvention.

With 47 million voters and turnout at 75%, Thailand’s latest election results pose a decisive challenge to the country’s long-established regime. The Pheu Thai party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, the youngest sister of exiled fugitive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, secured a resounding triumph, winning 265 seats in the 500-member assembly, while the ruling Democrat Party mustered just 159.

The return to power of Pheu Thai is extraordinary – and not only because Yingluck will be Thailand’s first female prime minister. The establishment-aligned courts dissolved the party’s two previous governments, and banned scores of its leading politicians from office for five years.

Pheu Thai’s victory thus suggests that a previously marginalized electorate has been permanently awakened. A similar majority of the Thai electorate voted for Thaksin’s parties and their pro-poor populist platforms in January 2001, February 2005, April 2006, and December 2007, defying a military coup, a coup-induced constitution, judicial interventions, and army coercion and repression.