New Thai system will clip wings of politicians

New Thai system will clip wings of politicians

Im his gruff, straight-talking style, Thai junta chief Prayuth Chan-ocha has dismissed concerns about having an interim Parliament half-filled with military officers. Judge the House for its performance, he says. He is right, in part. The legislature set to convene today is but a stepping stone to a far larger purpose.

Most observers can see what is coming: The political and business network of self-exiled former premier Thaksin Shinawatra will be dismantled and neutralised for the foreseeable future. The question now is just how Thailand's most successful political machine will be picked apart.

Already, there have been calls for General Prayuth not to "waste" his May 22 coup. These advocates are, no doubt, haunted by the speed with which Thailand's generals handed power back to civilians after ousting Thaksin in 2006, only to have his sister Yingluck Shinawatra sweep into power in the 2011 elections.

While summoning and/or temporarily detaining more than 500 individuals since the coup, the current junta has not just picked off members of erstwhile ruling Puea Thai party and its "red shirt" supporters.

It has also identified luminaries in the Thai business world linked to Thaksin, like Mr Anant Asavabhokhin, chairman of Land and Houses, one of the country's biggest developers. It showed a keen awareness of the possible support for the Thaksin network.

The junta will next convene a national reform council that will help pick a team to draft a new Constitution. The transition will take at least a year.

The Election Commission is suggesting a two-term limit for members of the Lower House. The Upper House will be fully appointed. (Before the coup, only about half were appointed.) Campaigning on monetary promises should be banned, it suggests, and electoral boundaries enlarged.

The implications are clear. All the proposals strike at the heart of Puea Thai's support base.

Thaksin, a former telecommunications magnate, came to power in 2001 by appealing to the aspirations of the lower middle-class voters emerging from rural Thailand, most of them in the populous north-east and north.

His mass policies upended the patron-client relationship voters had with their local "godfathers". The most well known is the 300 baht (S$12) health-care scheme that made medical fees affordable for the poor.

His network of influence extended from the Senate - then an entirely elected body - to state firms, where board members were political appointees, and vast swathes of the business world. He shook off allegations of corruption and authoritarianism through his dominance in Parliament.

Over the years, as the royalist establishment tried to wrest back some control, his network survived his personal ouster and several party dissolutions, each time morphing into a similar entity under a new name.

But Thaksin's ascendancy can also be attributed to constitutional changes enacted in 1997 to inject some durability into a system fraught with unstable coalitions among small parties. It strengthened the power of the premier, and eventually nurtured a system dominated by two main parties: Thaksin's and the Democrats.

Now, the pendulum is poised to swing to the other end. When elections are held in Thailand again, the new rules are expected to make it hard for any particular party to dominate the system.

Former diplomat and Democrat politician Kasit Piromya predicts: "It will be a sort of limited democracy… or 'guided' democracy." Politicians will still be elected, but Parliament will also be filled by representatives of various professional associations, like those for engineers and doctors.

"And the military will still have a security role in there somewhere."

The new rules are expected to inflict collateral damage on politicians as a whole, given how they have borne the bulk of the blame for the on-off unrest in Thailand for the past eight years.

Still, some doubt that the eradication of Thaksin's political network will be total.

Thaksin, in his quest for votes, tapped deep-rooted sentiments of rural voters against persistent inequality and roused their political consciousness, says Thammasat University analyst Chairat Charoensin-o-larn.

"If you really want to remove Thaksin, you have to restructure Thai society. You have to make Thai society more equal, more just and more open," he says.

This article was first published on August 07, 2014.
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