The Crisis of Thai Democracy

One year after he was re-elected in a landslide, Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has been forced to dissolve the National Assembly and call a snap election. Although his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party commands a 75% majority in the assembly, Thaksin is embattled. He remains immensely popular with rural voters and the urban poor, who comprise more than 60% of Thailand’s electorate, but he has been battling a fervent Bangkok-based insurrection against his rule by the intelligentsia and middle classes.

They accuse Thaksin, Thailand’s wealthiest businessman, of corruption and treason for the tax-free sale of his family-owned Shin Corporation to the Singapore government’s Temasek Holdings for $1.9 billion. Thaksin’s rapid reversal of political fortune attests to the limits of the ballot box, as well as to democratic shortcomings that now beset a host of developing countries, including regional neighbors such as the Philippines.

Until recently, Thaksin appeared to be as unassailable at home as he was bold and credible abroad. Exploiting Thailand’s deep urban-rural divide, Thaksin bulldozed his way to power in 2001 on a populist platform. He stirred up national pride and promised rural Thais that their country would rise to greatness following the devastating 1997 economic crisis.

A raft of populist policies underpinned his first four-year government, from rural debt suspension and cheap universal healthcare to handing out $25,000 to each of 77,000 villages for entrepreneurial start-up funds. Reminiscent of development strategies prevalent in East Asia, Thaksin picked strategic niche industries to propel Thailand’s economic expansion, focusing on automobiles, fashion, food, healthcare, and tourism.