By Jane West
The election victory of the populist, left of centre, Puea Thai (For Thais) party in Thailand last weekend is a further indication of the continuing rise in struggle and shift to the left in a series of semi-colonial and developing countries – a trend in contrast to the predominant one at present in the US and Europe.
Puea Thai was founded following the banning of exiled former Prime Minister Thanksin Shinawatra’s Peoples’ Power Party, which won the 2007 election, after a military coup in 2006 had overthrown the 2001-06 Thaksin government and imposed military rule.
The party – led by Yingluck Shinawatra – won the election promising a 40% increase in the minimum wage, a 50% subsidy to farm prices, a computer for every school student and justice for the families of the 91 killed by the army in the bloody suppression of the 2010 protests against the military-backed government of then prime minister Abhisit – Abhisit also led the Democrat Party to defeat in these elections.
The Puea Thai party swept to a convincing victory in the face of universal hostility from the Thai military establishment – the real power in the Thai state – the monarchy and elite, the state bureaucracy and big business. Puea Thai won a convincing 265 seats in the Parliament of 500, with the opposition establishment Democrat Party trailing with 159.
The victory of Puea Thai continues the unbroken string of election wins for parties linked to Thaksin Shinawatra since 2001, despite the banning of his parties, his forced exile, conviction on conflict of interest charges, a military coup against his government in 2006, the judicial removal of the government elected in 2007 and an international campaign to discredit him.
Imperialism’s concern at the continuing success of Thaksin-linked parties in Thailand is reflected in the media responses to the result.
The Financial Times responded to the election with an article entitled ‘Thaksin’s dreams can end democracy’. Brushing the actual result of the election to one side, the FT claimed the only way to preserve democracy in Thailand is for Yingluck to make steps to appease the middle class and the army by breaking from the Party’s promises and by refusing to rehabilitate Thaksin. Making an (inaccurate) comparison to Chávez in Venezuela – and with the same twisted logic – it argues the only way to preserve democracy is to pervert the democratic will of the people, by meeting the demands of the army and other vested interests that cannot defeat Thaksin democratically so demand his exclusion from politics entirely. This is the FT’s concept of ‘democracy’ in action.
According to the FT, ‘At the heart of Thailand’s trouble – perpetrator or victim, depending on which side of the divide the speaker stands – is Thaksin Shinawatra’ – not the army that has carried out 11 successful coups (plus seven unsuccessful attempts) since 1932, nor the monarchy which maintains an unelected elite which demands protection for its power and privileges, nor its failed autocratic bureaucracy. ‘A divisive dynasty’.The fundamental demand was also spelled out by the Guardian: ‘Yingluck Shinawatra must distance herself from her brother’.
Thaksin – a telecoms entrepreneur – first won an election in 2001 when his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party won what was described as the most open, corruption-free election in Thai history. His party won 248 seats (more than any other party previously) just short of an overall majority. Setting up a coalition with 3 smaller parties Thaksin became the first elected Prime Minister of Thailand to serve a full term.
While definitely not socialist in either ideology or goals, his government carried out a number of progressive policies aimed at improving the standard of living of the rural poor in particular. While making no moves to carry out a land reform, the measures he did take – debt relief for farmers reeling from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the funding of rural social projects and micro-development programmes, the provision of free health care and a significant expansion of education, including funded scholarships for rural communities – were extremely popular with the mass of the population.
Between 2001 and 2006, under Thaksin, income in the poorest north-east of the country rose by 46%, and income equality fell significantly (when it had been rising from 1996-2000). The healthcare programme increased access to healthcare from 76% to 96% of the population, and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS fell. Other measures included the legalisation of Thailand’s estimated 2.3 million migrant workers, creating a legal national lottery used to fund education programmes, and a range of economic and other projects aimed at developing small rural business and alleviating rural poverty.
At the same time Thailand recovered from the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and GDP grew from 4.9 trillion baht in 2001 to 7.1 trillion baht in 2006, repaid its IMF debts 2 years ahead of schedule, and public sector debt fell from 57% of GDP in January 2001 to 41% in September 2006. The new Bangkok airport was completed, energy policy was overhauled, and a modernisation of the state bureaucracy was initiated.
In the February 2005 general elections, Thaksin and the TRT won a landslide, gaining 374 out of 500 seats in an election with the highest voter turn-out in Thai history.
However the forces of reaction were alarmed by these real successes of Thaksin’s government, particularly the fact that his measures had increased the confidence of the mass of the population, encouraging rising militancy especially among the rural poor. At the same time, his overhaul of the archaic, elitist state bureaucracy threatened to destroy vested interests.
The army-supported opposition whipped up hostility to his pro-poor policies among better off layers of the Thai population, and ran continuous media campaigns against alleged corruption and claiming he had insulted the Thai monarchy. Amnesty International condemned both his ‘drugs war’, in which it was alleged there had been 2500 summary executions, and the brutal suppression of an armed uprising in the south of the country.
Facing rising disruption, Thaksin called a snap election in April 2006. The right boycotted this, and so Thaksin’s party won 462 seats. With shrill cries rising from the right, and disruption backed by the army and bureaucracy, the electoral court annulled the election and proposed new elections in November 2006. Pre-empting this, the army carried out a coup in September 2006 while Thaksin was out of the country at a meeting of the UN.
The military outlawed the TRT party, and eventually called new elections in December 2007. Thaksin supporters formed a new party, the People’s Power Party (PPP) that again won the largest number of seats – 233 – despite legal harassment and Thaksin being in exile. The Democrats trailed in second with 165 seats.
The PPP formed a coalition government, but faced mounting opposition from a right-wing populist movement – the People’s Alliance for Democracy, often known as the ‘Yellow Shirts’ – with the tacit backing of the military. With Thaksin’s support mainly in the rural areas outside of Bangkok, these right-wing forces were able to hold increasingly violent anti-Thaksin demonstrations in the capital, culminating in 30,000 demonstrators occupying the government building in September 2008.
In Autumn 2008 Samak Sundaravej, the PPP prime minister, was disqualified from office on the absurd charge that his payments for his role as a TV cook constituted a conflict of interest!
Amid mounting protests and counter-protests the Constitutional Court removed the government by banning the PPP and appointed Abhisit, leader of the minority Democrats, as Prime Minister. Thaksin, still in exile, was indicted for alleged ‘conflicts of interest’ arising from his business dealings when in office, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment.
As the right-wing Democrat government began to undo the reforms of the Thaksin years, a pro-Thaksin movement began to develop stronger mobilisations. This primarily rural based ‘Red Shirt’ movement organised major mobilisations in Bangkok in 2009 and 2010. In 2009 they shut the international airport for over a week. In 2010 the protests led to street-fighting in central Bangkok until the army imposed to a brutal crackdown with many protesters killed and injured and leaders imprisoned.
With the PPP banned, the former leadership formed the Puea Thai party, choosing Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck, as party leader and Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2011 elections.
One thing should be crystal clear from this entire record, the Thai people have now shown repeatedly that they democratically support Thaksin Shinawatra and his parties to run the country – not the army, not the right-wing, pro-monarchy, pro-military Democrat Party, not the establishment elites and bureaucracy. But the real power in the country remains the army, which has so far graciously agreed it will ‘allow’ Yingluck to form a government and not interfere to overturn the election result.
The fact and the terms of this reassurance is of course an indicator of the continuing threat that the military will intervene if its sees the interests of the country’s minority elite threatened significantly.
While far from being socialist – even in rhetoric – and not even ideologically anti-imperialist, the support for the Thaksin current in Thailand, despite military coups and violent repression of the mass movement, is further evidence of rising militancy and struggle in a number of semi-colonial and developing countries.
It remains to be seen whether Yingluck Shinawatra maintains the course set out in the election or capitulates to the demands of the monarchy, army, ruling class and their international backers to break with the legacy of the Thaksin Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power governments. But in the present situation the left has to stand clearly with the Puea Thai against the forces of reaction ranged against it.