Amid the overly simplistic talk of coming dictatorship and blanket
English-language press condemnation of TRT and his tactics, the reasons
behind the Thaksin phenomenon are lost. His popularity is dismissed
by saying he fools voters or bribes them with handouts. The reality
is more complex. Thaksin is in tune with the voters and appeals to
them on many levels that are not always apparent (or even understandable)
to non-Thais. What factors have allowed Thaksin to succeed?
1. Catering to public opinion
That Thaksin publicly creates policies to react to public
opinion leaves traditional politicians aghast. Thai politicians--and
the Democrat Party in particular--have an unwritten pact:
elect us because we are capable and then after the election
you should not protest or put pressure on the government--the
time to speak up is during an election campaign. Thaksin has
allowed this idea to be turned on its head by quickly reacting
to the mood of the people. Thailand has always been a country
where those in higher positions validate and put their approval
on the people's actions--not the other way around and the
old guard politicians have not been able to deal with this
2. "Impurity of protest" and pressure on critical
The suppression of TV shows critical of TRT, propaganda by
state run agencies, and pressure on the print media stems
from I call the "impurity of protest." This is a
Thai belief that protest should be dismissed if it can be
said that the motives behind the protest are not pure. For
example, that certain people stand to benefit from the protest.
Almost all dissent in the Thai system is eventually labeled
to be tainted using this tact. TRT pressure on media is rooted
in the belief that protests in the press against their policies
are tainted and thus they are justified to strike back to
be able to implement their plans.
3. Making promises
Thaksin makes promises and promises are rare in Thai politics partially
because of the patriarchal style of Thai society ("if you are
good, things will be given to you--but you don't ask for anything")
and partially because of coalition government in which promises
would be difficult to follow through on. From looking at the dynamics
of previous governments, it is clear that once in power, a government's
focus is on catering to various political factions and not gauging
the mood of the populace. All parties had initiatives they wanted
to push, but no voter expected more than competent representation
from those elected.
Thaksin's promise making has likely started a change in other political
parties. They will not be able to campaign around simple ideas like
"we are capable" and expect to be elected without making
and following though on promises. Through most of the government's
first term, the opposition used the fact that the government made
promises to voters as a criticism, but it never stuck.
Underlying TRT's promises and initiatives are vast economic
and corporate resources. TRT has boldly used money in service of
goals it sees as deserving, to appease politicians in the parties
it has absorbed, and to penalize business groups associated with
the opposition. In many ways, these tactics are no different than
policies implemented by previous governments. What is different
is the sheer scale of the wealth available and the extent to which
TRT seems willing to go to designate business winners and losers
without regards to transparency (this is beginning to look similar
to the system Malaysia's Mahatir created).
5. TRT runs a modern
TRT's organization, message, discipline, and modern public relations
management have left the opposition in the dust. Democrats, bafflingly,
had no unidentifiable identity in the election until the "201"
concept. The 201 campaign, intended to preserve the opposition's
ability to censure the government and the PM, was instantly derided
as indicating the Democrats were conceding the election. It is believed
that he 2001 campaign would cause people to vote for the ruling
TRT to make sure they were being represented by those in power--as
opposed to electing an opposition figure who could do anything for
them. That the Democrats placed their hopes on a stinging critique
of Thaksin in parliament (by Chuan, no doubt) is even more indicative
of their backwards thinking. Today the fate of a government does
not rest with a PM 'losing face' in the halls of parliament TRT
has expanded the arena aggressively to curry favor with voters directly
throughout its term.
6. Thaksin fits voter expectations
What Thaksin offers fits the expectations and desires of many voters.
Voters used to old, cautious politicians who basically guarantee
nothing ever really changes are energized by a party with policies
that are still in place six months after the are implemented. In
the past, a characteristic of a new policy or rule change was that
within six months everything would revert to normal. That Thaksin
insists that rules be maintained makes him extremely threatening
to the old system of compromise.
Even the ability to change the constitution can be seen in this
light. Opposition politicians' pleas to give them enough votes to
stop a change in the charter can again be seen as a guarantee that
there is no chance for change.
7. The traditionalism
of the opposition
The Democrats are so far unable to find an alternative to TRT's
public relations. Their tactics to spin public opinion--arranging
public seminars where academics warn the public about Thaksin--are
a top-down method that assume people will listen to those more educated
and in loftier positions then themselves. Not only was this tact
old-fashioned, but it was also troubling that the opposition continued
them as a main tactic long after it was clear it was not working.
The slow disintegration of the Democrats is one of the unanswered
mysteries of the last four years. As a party that prides itself
in maintaining Thailand's democratic tradition, it can consider
that its comportment over the past four years has let the country
8. It does not matter that Thaksin is so rich
Westerners in particular have a hard time understanding why being
rich is alone not a cause for branding someone as self-serving or
otherwise unfit for office. Thais typically do not have these beliefs
about the rich. While voters may disapprove of the wealth Thaksin
has accumulated while in office, they fully accept that anyone in
that position will likely behave like this. A rich individual such
as Thaksin is thought to understand and handle others who are trying
to enrich themselves in the same way massage-parlour king Chuwit's
shady background is seen to qualify him to deal with the shady influences
9. Lots of free money
to the people
TRT makes sure that money is distributed (or that appears to
be distributed) at the lowest level possible. Thai politics has
always been driven by handouts, pork barrel projects, and other
programs to allow the elected to recoup their investment in running
for office. What TRT did was to make sure the money was injected
at the lowest level possible. Something like this really appeals
to the man on the street.
10. Attention to
Campaigns for social hygiene are very popular with the public--even
in Bangkok. A staple of the Thai-language press are nearly weekly
sensational articles about outrageous immoral behavior that is threatening
society. This kind of fear is always prominent in societies undergoing
rapid changes--and the last few decades have contained unprecedented
change for Thailand. TRT has made confronting these social ills
a key party characteristic and the public loves it.
11. Quickly turning negative into a positive
Whether it was the southern insurgency, the tsunami, or the
many scandals, Thaksin was out in front, sometimes taking responsibility,
sometimes assigning blame, sometimes just talking. Thaksin has
a flare for boldness that is definitely unusual in Thai politicians
who are used to coalition governments and are always looking to
keep their options open.
12. High death tolls are acceptable under certain circumstances
Prominent in most foreign articles about Thaksin is the mention
of the 2000+ deaths in the anti-drug campaign. Everyone accepts
that these deaths were largely, if not exclusively, extra-judicial
killings and part of a conscious campaign. Most people accept
that this kind of tactic is the only way to deal with the social
ill of drugs as local police and government are crooked, easily
intimidated, and will never be able to effect the change themselves.
13. Delivering the solid Northeast
Once again, the massive, patriarcial-based population continues
to be key to controlling the country. TRT made sure it was part
of their plan through its consumption of parties with power base
in the Northeast like NAP.
14. Co-opting the men who must be in power
Thaksin successfully cowed the power-men who must be in power--Chawolit
(NAP), Banharn (Chat Thai), and Suwat (Chat Pattana Party). The
old guard politicians seemed initially confused as to why Thaksin
continued to bring these people into the government, since he
was already the government in power. However, TRT understood that
having these men on the outside, backed by their party machinery,
would insure constant plotting against the government.
Thaksin has also been able to enforce party discipline. In the
past, political conflict was often greatest between factions inside
a government. While the press still looks hard for these kind
of conflicts, by and large Thaksin has stamped these out to present
a united front.
Beyond this, the same factors that allow Thaksin to out maneuver
the old guard politicians in the opposition allows him to out
maneuver this coalition partners.
15. Doom and gloom scenarios have not come to pass
Predictions of imminent doom are never wise in politics. Economic
collapse has not yet happened after four solid years of warnings.
16. The southern unrest did not hurt Thaksin
The southern insurgency is another issue that can be seen
differently when contrasting the foreign press to what people
actually feel in the country. Throughout 2004, the English-language
press and opposition parties made sure that a "Thaksin is
in trouble and confused" line was the prominent in the press.
This was often at the same time his public approval for broader
and harsher measures were at an all-time high. Quite simply, the
more the unrest, the more people will demand harsher crackdowns
and not blame government 'bumbling.' The southern unrest also
stirred patriotism along with the idea that the Democrats have
sold out the country by exposing it to foreign criticism over
the Tak Bai incident.
Also see ThaiElections.com