Can Thaksin make a political comeback?

Can Thaksin make a political comeback?
PHOTO: The Nation/Asia News Network

"Elections are finally here - on March 24" was the front page headline on Thursday of The Nation, an English-language newspaper in Thailand.

Finally, almost five years after ousting the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shina-watra with the barrel of a gun, the military junta has called for an election.

The March 24 elections will end the military rule that began in 2014. Army chief Prayut Chan-o-cha led a bloodless coup that toppled the government then led by the Pheu Thai party. The coup leader took over as prime minister.

What happened to Shinawatra then was history repeating itself.

In 2006, the military launched a coup against her brother, then Prime Minister Thaksin Shina-watra, when he was in New York City to attend the United Nations General Assembly.

I remember that coup. At that time, I was The Star's Thailand correspondent based in Bangkok and also the Asia News Network (ANN) editor.

That night, I was home in Bangna near Bangkok when I received a phone call saying there was an ongoing coup. I rushed to the nearby The Nation office where I worked.

Thasong Asvasena, a journalist from The Nation, told me not to worry as friendly soldiers had arrived to secure the newspaper's premises. I looked out the window and saw armed soldiers surrounding the building.

It was called the Happy Coup as many Bangkokians hated Thaksin. They were delighted to see the end of his reign.

But that was not the end of Thaksin's political grip on Thailand. The billionaire is like the Terminator. He'll be back - through political parties linked to him.

Although he was in self-imposed exile, his party, the People Power Party (PPP, a reincarnation of his Thai Rak Thai party which had been banned by the military junta) won the election in 2007.

A year later PPP lost power in a "judicial coup" in which Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, who is married to Thaksin and Yingluck's sister, was forced from office by a Constitutional Court ruling. The court disbanded PPP for electoral fraud and barred its leaders from participating in politics for five years.

Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, from the Democrat party, formed a coalition and became Prime Minister.

In 2011, an election was called. Pheu Thai (the reincarnation of the banned PPP) won in a landslide victory and Yingluck became Thailand's first female prime minister.

In 2014, the military seized power. It was the country's 12th coup d'etat since the first in 1932.

Now, in 56 days, Thais will go to the polls. The big question is, can the self-exiled Thaksin, whose party has never lost an election, make a political comeback through his Pheu Thai alliance?

On Friday in Bangkok, I met Sean Boonpracong, a former national security adviser to Prime Minister Yingluck, and Cod Satrusayang, the managing editor of ANN, to get their insights into Thai politics.

"Can Thaksin make a comeback?" I asked them in separate interviews.

"Absolutely, because essentially the Thai Rak Thai, PPP and Pheu Thai parties - which are the incarnations of Thaksin's political base - know how to capture the political aspirations of the people," said Boonpracong.

After more than four years in power, the military junta could not deliver what the people wanted, he said.

Boonpracong said early polls - by various credible pollsters - indicate that Pheu Thai and its allies, such as Thai Raksa Chart and Future Forward (led by auto parts billionaire Thanathorn Juangroong-ruangkit), could win 272 to 300 seats for MPs out of 500.

"It looks like Pheu Thai will still win. Despite the odds stacked against them, despite the military drafting a Constitution that's supposed to be anti-them, despite the redrawing of the constituencies, they will still win," said Satru-sayang.

The question now, said the ANN editor, is not whether Pheu Thai will win - "But whether they'll win by a large enough margin so that the other side can't call in the clause that can put in place an unelected prime minister who is not an MP," he said.

The electoral odds are stacked in favour of the military junta, though.

There will be 750 representatives - 500 MP posts (constituency and party lists) from the lower house of Parliament (like our Dewan Rakyat) up for grabs and 250 from the upper house (like our Dewan Negara) comprising junta appointees and military brass. These 750 people will decide who will be prime minister.

In theory, the junta needs parties aligned to it, such as Phalang Pracharat, to have 126 MPs win seats as it has 250 senators (who are not elected, remember). The math is 126 + 250 = 376, which is a simple majority.

Whereas Pheu Thai and its allies have to have 376 MPs win to form the government, as the 250 senators are all junta appointees.

In a nutshell, the junta leaders can still remain in power even without an elected representative majority.Even if Pheu Thai and its allies win most of the votes, there is no guarantee that it can form the government because the electoral system favours the military junta, said Boonpracong.

"Pheu Thai (and its allies) have to win the lower house seats overwhelmingly," he said.

When I was working in Bangkok from 2006 to 2010, Thailand was divided into two groups: "I love Thaksin" and "I hate Thaksin". There was no middle ground. And those who loved Thaksin hated those who hated Thaksin. And those who hated Thaksin had no love for those who loved Thaksin.

Thaksin has been in voluntary exile since 2006, and I was curious to know whether he is still a divisive figure.

Well, after more than four years of junta rule, the divisiveness - based on social media postings - has reduced, Boonpracong said.

"As he has not been in power for 12 years, essentially, they (those who hate him) can't blame Thailand's ills on the bogeyman that is Thaksin," he said.

Satrusayang said Thaksin is really popular in rural areas, especially in the north-east and north. The former prime minister, he said, is still popular among the poor because of his populist policies, such as cheap health care and loans when he was in power."

They also have a feeling that they voted for this guy and the Bangkok elites keep overthrowing him over and over again - as if they know better. There's an us (the poor in the north and north-east) against them (elite Bangkokians) mentality," he said.

Boonpracong said: "Thaksin is just a politician who we should not overpraise. But overall he has he has done a lot of good for the people on the periphery who make up 70 per cent of the bottom rung of Thai society.

"He has moved the earth to make their life better economically," he said.

Bangkokians, Boonpracong feels, are less angry at Thaksin. "They feel that Thailand's economic performance the last five years under the junta has been less dynamic than our neighbours'," he said.

Satrusayang, however, feels that Thaksin is still hated by most Bangkok people. But there's not as much intensity between the red shirts (pro-Thaksin) and yellow shirts (anti-Thaksin), he said.

"The yellows and reds agree that they hate the military more because it has been in power for too long," he said.

"The yellows aren't going to vote for Pheu Thai and reds won't vote for the Democrats (or junta aligned parties) but the military is the central figure of hate now."

According to Satrusayang, this is because when the military came into power it promised that it would be gone in a year.

"Now it has been more than four years. They kept on postponing the elections, they keep on lying, they keep on infringing on civil liberties."

The military junta, except for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, is not popular, said Satrusayang.

"Prayut is decently popular because he is seen as a funny uncle. But Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan is hated because of his watch scandal," he said. (Wongsuwan is said to own a collection of undeclared luxury watches.)

It looks like Thaksin's alliance will win the popular vote but it won't be easy for it to form the government.

It needs about 100 senators to switch sides or for the junta (under pressure from a higher power) to blink on polling night.

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