Pheua Thai’s nomination of Yingluck Shinawatra as their candidate for Prime Minister gives Thailand the electoral contest it had to have. It’s not quite Abhisit versus Thaksin, but it’s as close as Thailand can get to a historical confrontation that has been ten years in the making.
Thaksin Shinawatra has dominated Thai politics for a decade. Electorally he is the most popular politician Thailand has produced. In his last electoral confrontation with the Democrats, in 2005, he flogged them. Like any political leader he had his vulnerabilities, but the forces arrayed against him in 2005 and 2006 had neither the wit nor patience to chip away at his power via electoral means. The Democrats (or, as I used to refer to them, the “Democrats-except-when-you-can’t-win-an-election-and-then-a-coup-is-ok”) refused to rise to the occasion when Thaksin called their bluff with a snap-election in April 2006. The Democrat boycott of that election helped to pave the way for the military coup that came only five months later.
Given all that has passed since, it is easy to forget the central reality of recent Thai politics: Thaksin was a thrice-elected Prime Minister who was forcibly deposed by an illegal military coup. For a great many in Thailand his electoral legitimacy remains intact.
The Democrats are terrified of another contest with Thaksin. Together with their allies in the army, the judiciary and the palace, they have done everything they can to neuter his power. The coup was just the beginning. It was followed by the dissolution of two opposition parties, the banning of scores of Thaksin’s political colleagues, the imposition of a new constitution that can be used to sabotage electoral decisions, the conviction of Thaksin for one of his more trivial infractions, and the seizure of Thaksin’s assets as punishment for his success in contributing to a buoyant stock market. But it’s been an uphill battle for the Democrats, despite the backing they have received from the military and the palace. In the 2007 election, when the smooth and urbane Abhisit faced the odious Samak Sundaravej, the Democrats fared well in the party list vote, but were soundly beaten in the constituencies.
Yingluck is a much better proxy for Thaksin than Samak. That she is more presentable goes without saying. More importantly, she does not have Samak’s long and volatile political history and the whiff of maverick independence and unpredictability that went with it. Yingluck is clearly Thaksin’s woman: “Thaksin thinks, Pheua Thai acts”. Unlike Samak, Yingluck perfectly symbolises Thaksin’s appeal to generational change; her femininity underlines his challenge to established expressions of power; her business background echoes his CEO style; her economic success excites the aspirations that Thaksin cultivated; and, most potent of all, her surname is Shinawatra.
In political terms, Yingluck is Thaksin in a frock.
The government can fume all they like about her being Thaksin’s proxy–with her ear always to the phone–but, of course, that is exactly the point.
This will be a fascinating contest. If Ahbisit can win, he will be able to claim some electoral legitimacy. But he will have to manage that claim carefully, given the numerous shackles that have been placed on his opponents over the past five years. It’s not really a level playing field. Nevertheless, an Abhisit victory would surely force Pheua Thai to re-think the potency of the Thaksin brand.
If Yingluck wins, we’re back to 2005, except with political divisions hardened and a symbolic power vacuum opening up as Thailand contemplates the not-too-distant coronation of an unpopular king. A Shinawatra victory would set the scene for very interesting times indeed.