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[Editorial] Thaksin wins again

Yingluck Shinawatra and her Pheu Thai party have won Thailand’s parliamentary elections, claiming a commanding majority in the legislature. The results are a vindication of sorts for Shinawatra’s brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in 2006 by a military coup.

We say “of sorts” because Thaksin has been vindicated before: Since the coup, Thai politics have been marked by the continual reassertion of the former prime minister’s popularity, only to have the military and the country’s ruling elites crush that popular aspiration. The key question for Thailand today is whether that sad history will be repeated yet again.

Thaksin, a successful business executive and one of the world’s richest men, was first elected prime minister in 2001 and re-elected in 2005.

He was an unapologetic populist, riding to power atop the grievances of the masses of marginalized rural poor. He was deposed in 2006, ostensibly charged with corruption and tarred with whispered reports of lese-majeste, but his real offense was challenging the power structure in Bangkok.

Gone but not forgotten ― a frequent speaker to rallies of his “red shirt” supporters via video conference from Dubai where he resides in exile ― Thaksin’s supporters kept the faith. Versions of his former party ― outlawed by electoral regulations and court rulings ― continued to win elections whenever an election was called. And just as regularly, they were forced from office, either by legal or extra-parliamentary means.

Prime Minister Abhisit Yejjajiva, an Oxford-educated economist who has been in office since 2008, sensed that his Democrat Party had regained the initiative.

Confident that he and his allies could win a ballot after crushing opposition protests last spring, he dissolved Parliament and called a vote. That was a fatal miscalculation.

Thaksin’s sister took the reins of the Pheu Thai party and ran a flawless campaign. A businesswoman with no political experience, Yingluck proved to be a brilliant campaigner, echoing her brother’s populist message ― promising a sharp increase in the national minimum wage (40 percent) and free tablet PCs for nearly 1 million school children ― and sticking relentlessly to her message. In case there was any doubt, the party adopted the slogan “Thaksin thinks and Pheu Thai does.”

The Democrats were equally happy to make the former prime minister the centerpiece of the election, warning that a Pheu Thai win would create chaos and instability again and denouncing Thaksin’s corruption.

They were not helped, however, by claims that the military was not responsible for any deaths in last year’s clashes; 91 people were killed in two months of clashes in the spring of 2010 and there was ample video footage of government snipers firing away.

The elections results were unmistakable. Pheu Thai won 265 seats, a comfortable majority in the 500-seat Parliament. Abhisit quickly conceded defeat. Yingluck announced Monday that she agreed with four other parties to form a coalition government. The agreement will boost the bloc’s strength to 299 seats.

Yingluck needed as broad and big a coalition as possible. Thailand remains bitterly divided between the old order and the overwhelming majority of the nation, rural and urban poor who demand that democracy be real.

Their refusal to accept a fait accompli by the military and the wealthy is a testimony to the strength of their aspirations, the political acumen of Thaksin and the arrogance and political tin ears possessed by the elites.

But those hopes have been repeatedly crushed throughout Thailand’s history. The country has held 26 elections since it became a democracy in 1932; during that time there have been 18 coups or coup attempts and six prime ministers in the past six years. Thus the necessity of the biggest possible ruling coalition: It would crush the hopes of the defeated that they can overturn the election results by force of arms.

The coalition announced by Yingluck must force the elites to accept that they must live with the new Thailand.

In one promising sign, the general who led the 2006 coup and has since formed his own party has said that he would work with Pheu Thai.

A first key question is the fate of Thaksin. At first, some members of Pheu Thai said they would back a political amnesty, a popular step that is also about as inflammatory a gesture as is possible. The party has backed away from that position.

A compromise is needed. Solving that problem will permit a broader process of political reconciliation to begin.

The divide between haves and have-nots must be bridged. There needs to be a new division of power within Thailand that takes into account the evolution and maturation of its society. That will become more possible in a stable political environment, which will in turn create a more favorable business environment.

Business executives routinely identify political uncertainty as one of the most important obstacles for them.

Political peace in Thailand is the first step in the creation of a virtuous circle that will reward all Thais.

Editorial, The Japan Times