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26 Michael Kelly Connors 2 Thaksin’s Thailand: Thai Politics in 2003–04 Michael Kelly Connors* The stars are looking good for Thailand’s Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra — at least they were in late 2003. Amidst some dire predications of a difficult year ahead for the ruling coalition government, Thaksin upset fortune-teller circles by applying CEO criteria, suggesting that if they made wrong predictions they should quit. At least one fortune-teller still ventured that should the government hold elections at the beginning of 2005, Thai Rak Thai (TRT) — the dominant party in the increasingly quasi-coalition government — would easily win over 400 seats in the 500-seat House of Representatives.1 This was not just stargazing. Thaksin’s claim that TRT would win 400 seats was his chosen sword of 2003, used to threaten coalition partners with impending irrelevance, and to taunt the beleaguered Democrats with the possibility of permanent opposition. Of course, Thaksin had little need of the stars, having already expressed astounding confidence that he will last two full terms as prime minister, and, furthermore, “when I step down a new leader of the party will be prime minister for another eight years… and then the people will give us another four years, that is twenty years. Then I will ask the people to choose another party, which will have waited in the wings for so long.”2 Thaksin has not always been so brazen. In a reflective moment several 02 ThaiEcoRecovery Ch 2 5/5/06, 9:59 AM 26 Reproduced from Thailand's Economic Recovery edited by Cavan Hogue (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2006). This version was obtained electronically direct from the publisher on condition that copyright is not infringed. No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. Individual articles are available at Thaksin’s Thailand: Thai Politics in 2003–04 27 years ago, he confessed, “I am just a human being. People who are in power for a long time may acquire a self-delusion that they’re the best.”3 Events in late 2003 and through to the first half of 2004 have somewhat deflated Thaksin’s ambition of leading Thailand’s first elected single party government. Indeed, at the time of writing, it appeared as if the Thaksin star was quickly fading to a dim light surrounded by the burning flames of unresolved social, economic and political questions that Thaksin’s style of quasi-CEO managerialism has failed to quell. These problems include the crisis in the Muslim South, the mishandling of the avarian flu crisis, increasing questions on the legality of the “war on drugs”, and the rising wave of opposition to privatization. This chapter has the modest aim of highlighting the key political developments over the last year (April 2003–April 2004), and to relate these developments to the broader framework of the so-called “Thaksin project”. THAKSIN’S THAILAND Understanding what has been happening in the last year requires an appreciation of the Thaksin phenomenon. The electoral success of TRT in the 2001 elections was partly fuelled by nationalist reaction to the savaging Thailand experienced under IMF tutelage. It was in offering solutions to these dire problems that TRT gained traction. The crisis imperative allowed for the unique conditions under which Thaksin could emerge with broad support from erstwhile conflictive capitalist groupings, and from rural and provincial populations (Hewison 2001). In this unique conjuncture, Thaksin has moved to create a massive overhaul of Thailand’s state, political and economic apparatuses in order to achieve a more viable Thai capitalism. Control by big capital over state agencies via cabinet or by appointment is what characterizes the Thaksin regime. Under Thaksin, there has been a relentless attempt to penetrate and restructure the bureaucracy as an efficient machine. The advent of the CEO governor is perhaps most emblematic of this (Pasuk and Baker 2004). The development has also been marked by increasingly personalized appointments to key posts — the most notorious of which was the rapid advance of Thaksin’s cousin General Chaisit Shinawatra to Commander-in-Chief, Royal Thai Army, in August last year.4 The second aspect of the Thaksin regime is in the economic arena. The regime earned the label “populist” for pursuing a number of innovative schemes that have a Keynesian edge. Commentators also label it populist 02 ThaiEcoRecovery Ch 2 5/5/06, 9:59 AM 27 28 Michael Kelly Connors because of its...


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