Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is not the only business magnate turned
populist politician. Thailand’s prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra is an
equally controversial figure, but Thailand’s democracy is less well
established and now seems to be sliding towards crisis.

Thaksin has been under fire for cronyism and tax avoidance, especially
following the sale of his family’s telecommunications conglomerate to
Singapore in January. He tried to pre-empt critics by calling snap
elections for 2 April, but the opposition parties are boycotting and
the chairman of the election commission has now cast doubt on whether they will go ahead.

Mass protests in Bangkok have called for Thaksin’s resignation,
rallying at
the Democracy Monument, a highly symbolic landmark (built, ironically
enough, in unmistakably fascist style by a designer who had previously
worked for Mussolini). Today’s New York Times
says “The ever increasing confrontation carried echoes of popular
uprisings in the Philippines, Ukraine, Georgia and other nations where
elected leaders have been driven from office” by popular movements.

Thaksin has given mixed signals of his intentions, suggesting that he
might agree to step aside at least temporarily, but also threatening to
impose emergency rule. Yesterday’s Age quoted him saying: “The draft of the decree is ready and I’ll sign it if the security agencies say it is necessary.”

The problem for the Thai opposition is that their support is largely confined to Bangkok; in rural areas (apart from the Muslim south) Thaksin remains popular. It is the same
problem that European revolutionaries faced in the 19th century – they
could topple governments in big cities like Paris, but if the rulers
held their nerve they could rely on the countryside for support and
bring in peasant armies to crush the rebels.

In Thailand’s case, events are likely to depend on the attitude taken by
the monarch, the much-respected King Bhumibol, who has been a voice for
moderation in the past. On Monday he made a veiled appeal for calm, but more direct intervention may be needed to ensure a democratic outcome.