What's next for post-Thaksin Thailand?

What's next for post-Thaksin Thailand?


The new Srettha government's cabinet poses in front of Government House on Tuesday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)
The new Srettha government's cabinet poses in front of Government House on Tuesday. (Photo: Chanat Katanyu)

The formation of a new coalition government under Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin has closed a two-decade chapter in Thai politics.

In a matter of days, the back-and-forth years of "yellow" versus "red" street protests -- punctuated by two military coups in 2006 and 2014, two constitutions in 2007 and 2017, and multiple elections and dissolutions of parties -- are being written off with a flurry of power plays.

All this time, the big tussle in Thailand was not really about Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled but now rehabilitated founder of Pheu Thai and its precursor parties. Thailand's political conflict has been about the established centres of power and how they see off the challenge of the day to stay on top.

Those who have observed Thailand long enough will remember the early 2000s when Thaksin was ensconced in power. His brand of populist policies won hearts and minds and captured the collective imagination of how far Thailand could scale the heights of the global economy and the Asean and East Asian region while giving a chance to the poor and downtrodden.

Thaksin was so popular that he eventually became the enemy of the establishment. The conflicts of interest he brought with him from owning a telecommunications conglomerate and partnering with business cronies and provincial bosses left him open to a series of corruption allegations.

Ultimately, his conservative adversaries came up with an anti-corruption crusade that toppled him in 2006, facilitated by the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy. Then Thailand became stuck in a cycle of elections and protests, as the yellows returned to the streets in 2008, before the pro-Thaksin reds took their turn in 2009-2010.

The red shirts were even shot and killed by security forces under the command of generals who were behind both coups. Together with another set of yellow shirts in 2013-14, the same generals deposed the Pheu Thai-led government of Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin's sister.

Back in those years of nasty and gruelling political machinations, Thailand was polarised between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces. It seemed for a long while like a fight to the end. Thaksin was a threat because he and his party machine kept winning at the polls before being ousted and outmanoeuvred each time.

But in one fell swoop in recent weeks, a so-called "super deal" has put an end to all that with a major realignment of conservative forces that have co-opted Thaksin's side in the aftermath of the election on May 14.

For interested observers, the way to understand Thai politics is not to look at when an election takes place, which parties win, and what policies they stand for, but to focus on where the military, monarchy, and judiciary are placed, their outlook and preferences, and how these will be concocted or contrived.

In other words, the powers-that-be have the final say through power plays, exercised by judicial interventions or enforced by military takeovers, to determine the outcomes that truly matter in Thailand. Necessary but far from sufficient, elections matter only up to a point.

Despite coming in second at the poll, Mr Srettha's Pheu Thai Party, with its 141 of 500 seats in the elected assembly, now gets to head the government at the expense of the Move Forward Party (MFP) and its 151 MPs.

As the MFP has been forced into the opposition, at stake in Thailand is what happens now to its reform and modernisation agenda to bring the military, monarchy, judiciary, and bureaucratic elites in line with popular demands and expectations within a new constitutional order.

The MFP's broad reforms and adjustments of Thailand's institutional setting and political order within a new constitutional framework became a new existential danger, supplanting the old threat posed by Pheu Thai's populism and Thaksin's personal popularity.

In response to the MFP's rise, pro-establishment agencies, such as the Election Commission (EC) and the Constitutional Court, filed motions against the party and its leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, preventing the MFP from taking office.

With the winning party kept down, the junta-appointed Senate voted down Mr Pita's candidacy for prime minister. Parting ways with the MFP, Pheu Thai then formed a coalition government with most of the other parties in conjunction with a three-step operation.

Thaksin returned from exile on Aug 22, the same day Mr Srettha won the premiership vote in parliament with overwhelming Senate support. The 74-year-old former prime minister received a royal pardon nine days later, which reduced his imprisonment from eight years to one year, with the potential for more reductions.

It must be noted that the EC, Constitutional Court, and other state bodies and individuals who tried to forestall the MFP's ascendancy have suddenly gone quiet.

These power plays suggest that Thai people are not in charge of their country and that sovereignty ultimately does not belong to them but to the powers-that-be. Thaksin was a mere competitor of the establishment, even though he was labelled a usurper. When a real threat like the MFP's reform agenda came up against the military and the monarchy, Thaksin was easily embraced as an ally to keep the new challenge at bay.

The other side of the deal has seen Mr Srettha leading a newly formed cabinet, which was quickly sworn in to perform its duties. Still, the Pheu Thai-led government under Mr Srettha is likely to be far better than the nine years Thailand endured under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, the coup maker who became prime minister. So much damage has been done to Thailand's growth prospects and international standing that there is no time to waste in rectifying and revitalising the country and its economy.

Meanwhile, a new chapter in Thai politics has begun. The agenda of reform to make the Thai economy more competitive and to democratise traditional institutions is more important than the MFP itself. Future parties that adopt these structural reforms can expect to perform well at the polls, even if they will have to struggle to take office due to establishment forces who will still be the most powerful in this land for the foreseeable future.

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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