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Thai Rak Thai's Victory

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It was removed by a military coup, dissolved by court order some years ago, its successor also dissolved by court order and a subsequent leader banned from politics because he hosted a cookery show on TV, a new category of law was introduced as a pretext for another court to seize the assets of its leader who himself was convicted of a crime in a case in which, according at least to some authorities, no law was broken and no complaint ever received -- yet Thai Rak Thai has claimed another victory in Thai politics.

As the next general election approaches, due to be held on July 3rd unless there is another military intervention, attention -- at least some attention -- is being placed upon the manifestoes presented by the numerous political parties fielding candidates. Prior to Thai Rak Thai's landslide victory in 2001, few if any political parties bothered with anything resembling a credible ideology. The only one that made an effort to do this, the Thai Communist Party, has been banned for decades. Instead, politicians presented themselves as honest, virtuous and successful people who, according to Buddhist principles, are good because they are rich, owing to the effects of good and bad karma over various incarnations. A politician campaigning would be paraded as a great leader and people would be permitted to gaze upon his (occasionally her but less commonly) visage from afar. This process was ended by Thaksin Shinawatra, the creator of the Thai Rak Thai alliance, who went into the crowds as an ordinary person and welcomed interaction. This approach was mirrored at the party level with the creation of a manifesto for the Thai Rak Thai election campaign that made specific promises, some at least of which were kept (contradictions within different groups in the alliance, as well as normal political processes, made it impossible to satisfy all promises).

Now, in 2011, all parties are required to provide specific promises and even if not many of them are really credible, then at least they are talking about something rather than how virtuous they individually are. The second aspect of Thai Rak Thai's victory in this regard is the nature of the battleground of ideology. This centres upon such issues as means of mitigating rural indebtedness, improving the minimum wage, intervening in the price of commodities and so forth. As mentioned, not all of these manifestoes are very credible -- some are clearly nonsensical and hopelessly without any consideration of how to pay for proposed policies and others are obviously cynical attempts at cheapening the terms of debate (e.g. the ruling military-backed Democrat party). Most are just populist in nature and lack the ideology underpinning the Thai Rak Thai approach (i.e. the need to move away from low labour cost manufacturing in the face of emerging Chinese competitiveness and to diversify to reduce the threat of external environmental threats).

This leads to a curious unevenness in political discourse in Thailand. No large party, for example, questions the role of the state in leading the economy and distributing resources. The civil service is recognized in society as a whole (although not in all of the foreign business community) as being the appropriate means of enacting policies and changing economy and society. There is also an enormous vacuum at the centre of the political discourse concerning constitutional matters which is subject to a total ban -- even writing for a website in another country I am not even going to mention what I cannot talk about, given the level of repression introduced during the Abhisit regime. This situation, clearly, will work better in the short-term than in the long-term.

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John Walsh is Assistant Professor at Shinawatra University in Bangkok, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He has previously lived and worked in Sudan, Greece, Korea, Australia, Abu Dhabi and his native UK. He normally published academic (more...)
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