The retirements from frontline politics of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamed have deprived Southeast Asia of its senior leaders. Can Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra fill the regional leadership vacuum?
A series of bold foreign-policy strokes – the Asia Cooperation Dialogue, the Economic Cooperation Strategy for the development of mainland Southeast Asia, and America’s designation of Thailand as a “major non-NATO ally” – turned the international spotlight on Thaksin during his first term. Violence in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim south seemed to dent his ambitions last year, but his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party’s landslide victory last February gave his bid for regional leadership a new lease on life.
With the TRT capturing over 75% of the seats in the lower house of parliament, Thaksin is now politically invincible at home. Indeed, he has become the first elected Thai leader to finish a four-year term, be re-elected, and preside over a one-party government. Thaksin’s dominance of Thai politics is unprecedented, and his resilient popularity in the face of a fickle electorate is unparalleled.
Apart from his complete control of domestic politics, Thaksin commands other prerequisites of regional leadership. Already eyeing a third term, he can count on political longevity on the order of Mahathir’s 22-year rule. Notwithstanding the one-party system that the TRT is cultivating, Thaksin is armed with democratic legitimacy in a global arena bent on democracy promotion, and he speaks English decently enough to articulate his views and vision to a global audience.