Even by the weird and wonderful standards of south east Asian politics, the
“resignation” of Thailand prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday was a
strange one.

Thaksin resigned just days after being swept back into office in a
national election with 60% of the vote. The PM originally called the
election to head off a growing “people power” movement in Bangkok that
was calling for his ousting, prompted by a long list of controversies
and catalysed by his family’s US$1.9bn share sale of the national
satellite company and leading mobile phone network to Singapore’s
Temasek Holdings. The movement attracted up to 100,000 on the streets
at a time – not bad for the hottest capital in the world currently
sweltering through its hot season!

In order to blind side the protest movement – which was headed by
a middle-ranking media mogul and a leading monk and largely
unconnected with the official parliamentary opposition – Thaksin
called a snap poll. What he didn’t reckon on was the main three opposition parties,
who held about 120 out of 500 seats – agreeing to boycott and delegitimise the
poll.

Their tactics were spectacularly successful. Thais actually get a
“no” option on their ballot papers (imagine this in Australia) and about 40% of
them either chose this or informal voting. In Bangkok – the only genuine
metropolis in the country – this rose to about half the electorate. Combine this
with a requirement that winning candidates get 20% of the vote, and the result
was that 40 of the 400 geographic electorates (the other 100 are based on party
lists – Australian Senate style) were unable to return a candidate.

While
they can and will go to by-election, these 40 electorates are opposition
strongholds and as long as Thaksin remained leader they would be boycotted by
the opposition parties. And parliament can’t meet until 500 members turn up! Hence the impasse and the decision of
Thaksin to resign.

Just two days ago Thaksin belligerently asked his detractors on television what he should tell the 60% of the electorate
who voted for him if he resigned. He also hinted at an armed crackdown on
protests against him. But then he met with the King.

We’ll never know what they talked about: but the King celebrates his
60th anniversary on the throne in June. It will
be a very significant national event, so the idea that the celebrations
could be happening in the midst of possibly violent clashes between
police and protesters was clearly
too much for some to tolerate.

So Thaksin goes for the sake of national unity and the
opposition contest and win the 40 or so by-elections. His Thai
Rak Thai party increases its seats from 380 to over 450 out of 500, a new prime
minister gets voted in from one of Thaksin’s deputies and Thaksin is still there
in the chamber as a government MP, weaving his not so invisible hand. The broad
masses across the country – who like Thai Rak Thai for its public health care
and rural subsidy policies and distrust the rather uninspiring alternatives –
are happy. Thaksin perhaps comes back in the
future, or retires to enjoy his wealth. And until parliament meets, he remains caretaker PM.

You can alienate
geographically or cultural marginal minorities, such as the Muslims
in the far south of the country who never voted for him,
but don’t alienate the urban middle classes – especially in a city
like Bangkok where they’re about the only ones in the country who are
part of the formal economy and pay the bulk of taxes. Bangkok might
only have 39 out of 400 constituencies, but it’s a globalised city,
heavily dependent on tourism, foreign investment and economic
confidence – the complete opposite of the agrarian village communities
that dominate elsewhere.

Thaksin’s various shenangians – tax-free share sales of national
assets, extra-judicial police killings of suspected drug dealers, selective
crackdowns on “vice” and threats to freedom of speech such as closing opposition
radio stations – were simply bad
for business, and society.

Peter Fray

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