Thaksin Shinawatra Factor in Thai Politics

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Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand, was freed in February 2024 on parole after serving a six-month sentence for crimes linked to corruption. From 2001 until his administration was overthrown in a military coup in 2006, Thaksin led over Thailand. He was a towering but controversial figure in Thai politics, and his populist ideas resonated with rural residents who felt ignored by the country’s ruling class. Thaksin, 74, continued to have an outsized influence on Thai politics even after he fled the country in 2008 to evade prosecution for crimes committed while in government, including abuse of power.

Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of Thaksin, was the first female premier of Thailand from 2011 to 2014 while campaigning for the Pheu Thai Party, which sprang from the ashes of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai. However, after almost 16 years of self-imposed exile, Thaksin returned to Thailand in August 2023. At the same time, the Pheu Thai Party reclaimed power via a coalition government it created with the pro-military Palang Pracharath Party and United Thai Nation, headed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin.

By the way, Thailand’s political landscape has been indelibly shaped by the enigmatic figure of Thaksin Shinawatra, a businessman-turned-politician whose rise to power, controversial reign, and dramatic fall from grace have left an enduring imprint on the country’s political history. For over two decades, Thaksin’s name has been inextricably linked to the country’s political discourse, evoking a range of emotions from fervent adulation to intense antipathy. His populist policies, authoritarian tendencies, and polarizing influence have not only transformed the dynamics of Thai politics but have also revealed deep-rooted societal fissures that continue to reverberate to this day.

The Rise of a Populist Icon

Thaksin Shinawatra’s foray into politics began in 1998 when he founded the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, capitalizing on his business acumen and personal charisma to craft a populist narrative that resonated with the rural and urban poor. Drawing from his entrepreneurial success as a telecommunications tycoon, Thaksin positioned himself as a champion of the disenfranchised, promising economic prosperity, improved social services, and a strong voice for those who had long been neglected by the traditional power structures.

Thaksin’s ability to connect with the common people through his down-to-earth demeanor and his promises of tangible change resonated deeply, propelling him to an unexpected victory in the 2001 general elections. Upon assuming the premiership, Thaksin wasted no time in implementing his ambitious “Thaksinomics” agenda, a suite of populist policies designed to uplift the underprivileged segments of Thai society. Key initiatives included the introduction of a comprehensive and affordable universal healthcare system, substantial investments in rural development programs, and generous farming subsidies aimed at boosting the livelihoods of the agricultural sector.

Thaksin’s policies struck a chord with the rural poor and urban working class, who had long felt neglected by the Bangkok-centric political establishment. His programs aimed to bridge the economic divide and empower the marginalized, marking a significant shift in Thailand’s political arena and challenging the traditional power dynamics that had long favored the urban elite and the monarchy’s supporters. His charismatic leadership, coupled with his ability to connect with the masses and his promises of tangible change, resonated deeply, propelling him to consecutive electoral victories in 2005, where his party secured an unprecedented three-quarters of the seats in the lower house of parliament.

The Consolidation of Power and Controversies

As Thaksin’s grip on power solidified, concerns over his authoritarian tendencies and alleged corruption began to mount. Critics accused him of exploiting his position for personal gain, citing the tax-free sale of his family’s telecommunications company, Shin Corporation, to Singapore’s Temasek Holdings in 2006, which sparked widespread protests and allegations of cronyism and conflicts of interest. The controversial “War on Drugs” campaign, launched in 2003, further tarnished Thaksin’s reputation as reports of extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses surfaced. According to human rights organizations, more than 2,500 individuals were instantaneously executed during the crackdown, raising serious concerns about the erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law under Thaksin’s administration.

Allegations of undermining democratic institutions, suppressing dissent, and centralizing power within his inner circle fueled growing dissent among his opponents, including the influential urban middle class and the monarchy’s supporters. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a protest movement known as the “Yellow Shirts,” emerged as a formidable adversary, staging mass demonstrations that culminated in a military coup on September 19, 2006, while Thaksin was abroad. Thaksin, who found himself ousted from power and faced with corruption charges, which he vehemently denied as politically motivated, initially chose to remain in self-imposed exile rather than face imprisonment. In the aftermath of the coup, Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party was disbanded, and 111 of its senior members, including Thaksin himself, were barred from participating in politics for five years. The military-backed government implemented measures to curb Thaksin’s influence, seizing his assets and issuing arrest warrants on charges of abuse of power and corruption.

Exile and the Red Shirt Movement

Thaksin’s ouster did not diminish his influence; instead, it galvanized his supporters, known as the “Red Shirts,” who viewed his removal as a subversion of democracy and a betrayal of the will of the people. The Red Shirt movement, led by the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), emerged as a potent force, staging massive protests demanding Thaksin’s return and the restoration of his political power. Fearing imprisonment on what he considered to be politically motivated charges, Thaksin remained in self-imposed exile, initially in Britain, where he purchased the English Premier League football club Manchester City in 2007. This move, while endearing him to Thailand’s soccer-mad population, was criticized by his opponents as a mere political tool aimed at bolstering his public image and maintaining his relevance in Thai politics.

Despite his physical absence, Thaksin’s influence over Thai politics remained palpable, as his allies and supporters continued to wield significant power and mobilize grassroots support. The People’s Power Party, formed by Thaksin’s allies, won the 2007 general elections, securing 233 out of 480 parliamentary seats, a testament to the enduring popularity of Thaksin’s populist policies among the rural and working-class constituencies. However, the People’s Power Party’s tenure was short-lived, as it was dissolved in 2008 by the Constitutional Court on charges of electoral fraud, further exacerbating the political turmoil and deepening the divisions within Thai society.  The Red Shirt protests reached their zenith in 2010, when they occupied central Bangkok for months, demanding the resignation of the government and the restoration of Thaksin’s political influence. The standoff escalated into violent clashes with security forces, resulting in at least 90 casualties – a grim reminder of the deep divisions within Thai society and the high stakes involved in the power struggle between Thaksin’s supporters and his detractors.

The Return and Grand Bargain

After nearly two decades in exile, Thaksin Shinawatra’s dramatic return to Thailand in August 2023 marked a significant turning point in the country’s political landscape. Greeted by adoring crowds and a reception akin to that of a rock star, his arrival coincided with the election of his ally, Srettha Thavisin, as Prime Minister, cementing a grand political bargain between Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party and its erstwhile adversaries. The circumstances surrounding Thaksin’s return were carefully orchestrated, involving his surrender to face legal charges, a brief stint in prison, and the prospect of a royal pardon facilitated by the newly elected government. This grand bargain aimed to end the protracted power struggle between Thaksin’s populist movement and the conservative establishment aligned with the military and monarchy, marking a pragmatic compromise born out of political expediency.

However, the formation of the new government, which excluded the progressive Move Forward Party despite its stunning electoral performance, drew criticism from pro-democracy advocates and raised concerns about the integrity of the electoral process. The grand bargain, while offering a temporary respite from the political turmoil that has plagued Thailand for years, is fraught with challenges and uncertainties. Thaksin’s return has reignited the polarizing dynamics that have defined Thai politics, with his supporters celebrating his homecoming as a triumph of democracy, while his detractors view it as a concession to a controversial figure accused of corruption and undermining democratic institutions.

Thaksin’s Lasting Legacy and Future Implications

Thaksin Shinawatra’s influence on Thai politics is undeniable, transcending his triumphs and tribulations. His populist policies and rhetoric have reshaped the country’s political discourse, empowering the marginalized and challenging the traditional power structures. His ability to mobilize grassroots support and his unwavering determination have made him a polarizing figure, inspiring fervent loyalty among his supporters and deep-seated resentment from his detractors.

One of Thaksin’s most enduring legacies is the reframing of Thai politics around the rural-urban divide, a cleavage that has become increasingly pronounced and has fueled the polarization within the country. His policies and rhetoric resonated deeply with the rural poor and working-class Thais, who had long felt neglected by the Bangkok-centric political establishment. By positioning himself as their champion, Thaksin effectively galvanized a powerful political base that had previously been marginalized, forever altering the dynamics of Thai politics. However, Thaksin’s legacy is not without its controversies and criticisms. His detractors accuse him of undermining democratic institutions, consolidating power, and using populist rhetoric to mask his alleged corruption and self-serving agenda.

As Thaksin navigates his return and the new political reality, his every move will be scrutinized by both his allies and opponents. The grand bargain that facilitated his homecoming may prove fragile, susceptible to shifting alliances and the ever-present threat of military intervention, which has been a recurring feature in Thai politics. Moreover, the rise of the Move Forward Party and its progressive agenda has introduced a new dynamic, challenging the traditional power brokers and offering an alternative vision for Thailand’s future.

In a nutshell, the Thaksin Shinawatra factor in Thai politics is a complex tapestry woven with populism, controversy, exile, and a relentless pursuit of power. His impact on the country’s political trajectory has been profound, reshaping the discourse, mobilizing the masses, and challenging the establishment. Thaksins meteoric rise, fueled by his charisma and populist policies, captured the imagination of the rural and urban poor, empowering them politically and economically in ways that were unprecedented in Thailand’s history.

By the way, as Thailand undergoes an uncertain future, Thaksin’s role and his ability to shape the nation’s destiny will undoubtedly continue to be a subject of intense scrutiny and debate. Whether he emerges as a unifying force or a catalyst for further polarization remains to be seen. However, one thing is certain: the Thaksin Shinawatra factor will continue to cast a long shadow over Thai politics for years to come, serving as a testament to the enduring impact of this enigmatic and polarizing figure on the country’s political landscape.

– Kawsar Uddin Mahmud is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).

Published in Daily Observer [Link]