Why Thaksin succeeds

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?

(Photo: 2Bangkok.com)

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 new reality.

2. "Impurity of protest" and pressure on critical media
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.

4. Money/Influence
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 campaign
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 down.

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 in society.

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 social issues
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

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