Thaksin Shinawatra — and the multi-pronged political, commercial and social movement that bears his long-term imprimatur — has shown that when it comes to winning elections he is Thailand’s best. His sister, Yingluck, will become Thailand’s first female Prime Minister.
Tonight’s result is a remarkable return to power for a political force that was forced out at the barrel of a gun on the night of 19 September 2006. In the years since then it has been constantly disrupted by royalist, military and judicial interventions. With more than 100 of its leading figures banned from politics Pheua Thai has succeeded in solidly defeating the very best the venerable Democrat Party can pitch against it.
Undiminished support for Thaksin’s political machine sends a strong message, domestically and internationally: efforts to undermine him have been unsuccessful. There is now little doubt that Thaksin’s political forces are now in a stronger position than they would have been if the 2006 coup had not been staged and if electoral judgements had been allowed to run their course.
Thaksin won in 2001, increased his majority in 2005, and then managed to pull together the numbers, under very difficult circumstances, in 2007. In 2011, much to the dismay of his opponents, Thaksin has once again stolen the show. Smart campaigning and effective brand management are part of this story. Less subtle efforts to curry-favour and barrel-the-pork are surely also relevant in many electorates. Whatever the locally-specific reasons for the Pheua Thai victory, at a national level it is an impressive one.
Pheua Thai will have to manage their success very carefully. Thaksin’s inevitable return to Thailand and his possible political rehabilitation is likely to galvanise fierce opposition. The events of 2008 are a reminder of how politically debilitating a determined group of anti-Thaksin protesters can be. Pheua Thai can legitimately claim a mandate for Thaksin assuming some role in government (“Thaksin Thinks, Pheua Thai Acts”) but they would be wise to move very slowly on his reintegration into the Thai polity.
Thailand’s royal family, military and judiciary will also have to respond to this result very carefully. No doubt, there will be hotheads looking to activate some of the legal booby-traps planted in the 2007 constitution. But to move against this government, either through legal manipulation or a more open display of force, would be lunacy. The millions of voters who turned out for Yingluck simply won’t tolerate yet another electoral decision being overturned. Voters have gone to the polls in a peaceful and orderly manner. If their judgement is dismissed, those who advocate much more violent approaches to political change will, inevitably, play their hand.
Thailand now has an opportunity to start re-building faith in the electoral process. It would be a national tragedy if this opportunity was squandered.