The formidable strength of Thaksin Shinawatra’s political allure was confirmed at the ballot box last week when his sister, Yingluck, led his supporters to victory in the country’s general elections. Clearly, the exiled former prime minister can still pull in the votes, despite his five-year absence.
We asked our readers last week to help explain this enduring appeal in our web poll. The top answer was unsurprising: Thaksin and his successors in the Puea Thai party are shameless populists. Yingluck led a campaign crammed with vote-winning policies aimed at the poor majority, including credit cards for farmers, a tablet computer for every high-school student and a 40% hike in the minimum wage.
Some of our readers said that Thaksin’s popularity lies in his record of delivering on his promise of economic growth. There is probably some truth to that. It is easy to be a populist — and the Democrats certainly threw in their own share of vote-winning promises — but Thaksin’s populist government also delivered impressive growth, thanks not to populist policies but mainly to one thing: political stability.
This has been something of a dilemma across Asia's young democracies. Emerging economies often thrive when politicians get on with governing, but the region's voters tend to return weak governments that struggle to make good policy, whereas autocrats can often get results — up to a point. Thaksin might have delivered economic growth during his leadership, but the influence he has wielded since leaving the country in 2006 has only hurt Thailand and its people. That seems like a raw deal for the Thais, but for the most part they still smile kindly on him.
A surprisingly large number of our readers reckoned that Thaksin might possess Jedi powers — why else would Thailand's poorest people show such strong support for a Bangkok billionaire? A Jedi in the family would certainly be good news for Yingluck, who will otherwise find it hard to fulfil her grand promises. Without a Jedi knight to back her up, it will be a small miracle if her government gets the chance to implement many of their policies. Most Thai pundits expect another descent into, at best, political stalemate. At worst (triggered perhaps by Thaksin’s return), there will be more bloodshed on Bangkok’s streets.
The problem runs deep. Most voters are poor and live in the countryside, and prefer Puea Thai’s big promises; while the rich who control the country make up a Bangkok-based minority that votes Democrat. Puea Thai can win at the ballot box, and the Democrats can win in the courts — and both can cause havoc on the streets. There is little hope that the two sides can reconcile their differences and work together to govern Thailand effectively.
Markets rose after the election result, which served as a reminder that things could have turned out much worse. Indeed, a peaceful and reasonably decisive outcome is the best that could have been hoped for. But the actions of the next few weeks and months will doubtless turn both those observations on their head.