EDITORIAL: Thai politics


After a prolonged period of uncertainty, Thailand's political situation has finally started moving back toward normal. Samak Sundaravej, head of the People Power Party, which won a plurality of votes in general elections in December, was elected by Parliament as prime minister at the end of last month. A coalition government led by Samak will soon be in place.

Over the past several years, Thailand has been repeatedly rocked by outbursts of discontent because of the strong-arm tactics adopted by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He accumulated massive wealth through his business activities. The political confusion culminated in a military coup in September 2006. It took more than a year for Thailand to return to democratic rule.

We certainly hope the new government will put Thailand firmly back on the path toward true democratization. Given its clout as a key member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Thailand carries a heavy international responsibility. The country's politicians, generals and people must realize that.

The political situation, however, does not warrant optimism.

Five of the six parties that will take part in the coalition were created by bigwigs of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party after he was ousted by the generals who staged the coup. In effect, pro-Thaksin parties managed to take back power from the junta.

During his election campaign, Samak described himself as a proxy of Thaksin. There is no denying that Samak's party won the electoral victory by trading on the former prime minister's popularity and influence.

Even after he went into exile following the coup, Thaksin has continued to attract attention by flexing his financial muscle to buy a British football club and making frequent media appearances. His efforts to avoid sliding into political oblivion have apparently paid off.

Thaksin, who has been indicted on corruption charges, is said to be ready to return to Thailand as early as May to face trial. There is a lot of talk in Bangkok now about whether he will try to stage a political comeback. The world watches his moves.

There is concern that for all the tough talk about restoring democratic rule, the new government will only succeed in restoring the status quo that existed before the coup.

A military coup that subverts democracy cannot be tolerated. But a revival of Thaksin-style politics, which triggered the coup, would amount to nothing more than a step backward.

Thaksin built a huge support base by doling out programs focused on poverty reduction in rural areas while using forceful means to suppress criticism against him. The Thaksin administration was characterized by story after story of political corruption.

It is true that Thaksin remained in power legally by winning a parliamentary majority through elections. But his government faced growing criticism, especially among urban residents, for its money-driven, pork-barrel and iron-fisted politics.

A legion of anti-Thaksin citizen groups mounted anti-government demonstrations. Even King Bhumibol Adulyadej reportedly gave his nod to the military coup. This appears to suggest that the dark sides of Thaksin's rule had become too visible and tangible to be ignored.

The nation's new government must not make the same mistake. It is up to the Thai people to decide whether to welcome Thaksin's return to the nation's political scene. Unless Thailand clearly breaks with the political style that invites military intervention, it will have a hard time trying to regain international trust.

The new government should focus on restoring discipline and stability in politics while taking effective measures to tackle such urgent problems as the wide gap in rural and urban incomes.

The nation needs to march toward political maturity to expel from its political lexicon the term "Thai-style democracy," which means the king is finally asked to step in whenever the situation becomes intractable.

--The Asahi Shimbun

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