Populism triumphs as election looms
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Populism triumphs as election looms


People walk past an election campaign poster erected along Tanao Road in Bangkok. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)
People walk past an election campaign poster erected along Tanao Road in Bangkok. (Photo: Apichart Jinakul)

Although the campaign season for Thailand's much-anticipated election has only just begun, populism has already become the runaway winner. All of the contesting parties have come up with a plethora of populist pledges to woo voters. That populism has triumphed in Thai politics bears multiple longer-term implications.

To be sure, Thailand is not alone in seeing the rise, spread and consolidation of populism. The basic logic and premise of populism is to pander to the masses against elite interests. In the United States and certain European and Latin American countries, the populist challenge has been to undercut rules and norms that have favoured established centres of power among policymaking elites, political parties, the media, think-tanks, campaign donors, and business interests that all feed into a self-perpetuating political machinery which runs a given country.

When he was US president, Donald Trump, for example, communicated directly with his base using Twitter, circumventing the conventionally powerful media and making enemies out of the traditional establishment in Washington, which he referred to as the "swamp".

There are also different degrees and ways to be populist. Japan's former prime ministers Junichiro Koizumi and Shinzo Abe exhibited populist characteristics by connecting massively with constituents and then leveraging the resultant popularity against the dominant and entrenched bosses of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party to achieve their policy objectives and longevity in power.

Although it varies in degrees, wherever populism lurks, economic inequality and income disparity are always present. In fact, populism preys on inequality. If inequality widens to a point that the government is unable to address popular grievances and expectations, the space for populist leaders tends to open up.

In Thailand, populism has been singularly associated with the rise and rule of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was prime minister from January 2001 until he was overthrown by a military coup in September 2006. While he is in a self-imposed exile, Thaksin's brand of populism has remained sticky and resilient. His original Thai Rak Thai Party was dissolved in May 2007, and its successor Palang Prachachon ("People's Power") was similarly dismantled in December 2008. Yet his third vehicle, the Pheu Thai Party, managed to carry his sister Yingluck Shinawatra to the premiership after the July 2011 election. In turn, Yingluck was ejected from elected office by yet another putsch in May 2014.

As is well known, the early Thaksin era featured the 30-baht universal healthcare, the 1-million-baht per village of start-up seed funds for the 77,000-odd villages at the time, and the rural debt repayment moratorium. The same era also harboured conflicts of interest, cronyism, collusion and abuse of power within the Thaksin administration involving associates, partners, and relatives. Most infamously, Thaksin hid assets under the names of his gardener and driver in order to slip through the constitution's asset-disclosure rules. When he was kicked out, the chief justifications included corruption and the detrimental effects of his brand of populism and how it intoxicated ordinary people and posed fiscal risks.

The aforementioned story is considered water under the bridge from the Thaksin years, old news about Mr Thaksin and why he had to be overthrown along with his sister and their ilk. What is profoundly different now is that the people who overthrew him have adopted his populist platform. A casual survey of campaign posters and billboards among major political parties that are contesting against Thaksin's picks is telling.

The lead coup-maker who seized power from the Yingluck government, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, now leads the United Thai Nation party. Its campaign promises include boosting state welfare assistance by 1,000 baht per month, topping up old-age pension to 1,000 baht per month, and providing 100 vocational scholarships per district throughout the country. The Palang Pracharath Party, headed by Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, also a partner in the May 2014 junta, is touting similar increases for welfare state cards holders and up to 5,000 baht in monthly pensions payment, along with petrol subsidies for the poor.

As the first mover and populist frontrunner, Pheu Thai is building on its earlier pledges to improve on the 30-baht healthcare and to provide a 20,000-baht per month safety net for destitute families. Other parties, from Bhumjaithai to Democrat and Chart Thai Pattana to Move Forward, all have presented numbers in their populist campaign pledges, which range from education, pension, utility subsidies, and so forth. The most remarkable populist pledge comes from the openly royalist-conservative Thak Bhakdi Party, which promises to bring Thaksin back to face justice but also promises a subsidy for electricity.

Thailand was going through a fundamental change two decades ago, which has been put on hold until recently.

Most of the electorate remained poor, lacking in upward mobility and a chance for a better tomorrow. When Thaksin came up with his first-generation populist policies, he struck a profound chord in Thai society.

For a while, the inherent inequality that made the Thaksin brand of populism so effective and successful was denied by his opponents and adversaries, who insisted that Thailand's problems were fixable and that Thaksin was a usurper exploiting manageable cleavages in society. That Thaksin's enemies have adopted his populist platform is an indirect admission that Thailand's stark inequality has gone so far as to lead the electorate to want something else which is better and promises more for their country.

Now that all parties and coup-makers contesting the poll have turned populist, it is difficult to see what justification they would use to stage another coup. All the charges against the Thaksin years, from abuse of power to conflicts of interest, cronyism to fiscal laxity and abuse of populist pledges, are now evident among his opponents and adversaries. In fact, because Thaksin had the first-move advantage, the more his enemies emulate his populism, the more it is going to benefit the Thaksin brand.

The alternative to easy populism is certainly available. It could include balancing the budget to reduce the financial burden on future generations, mandating Thai-English bilingualism to raise Thailand's game in the global economy, providing incentives for start-ups and innovation, revamping classroom education in favour of online learning, minimising internet costs, and so forth to gain electoral support from raising skills and opportunities for higher income.

But perhaps these are issues for a future and different kind of election. For now, populism has come out on top, by far beating Thailand's bureaucratic state under the supervision of traditional institutions -- such as the monarchy, military and judiciary -- and giving more weight to policies and representatives that can better appeal to people's demands and expectations.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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