Thaksin Shinawatra leads party to stunning victory in Thailand

Monday, February 7, 2005

Thailand —Prime Minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, appears likely to be returned to office, making history as the first elected Thai PM to win a second term. If exit poll indications are borne out, his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party will win in a landslide, to become the first single party majority in Thailand's relatively short history of parliamentary democracy.

The Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party looks set to secure approximately 375 seats in the election, allowing them to form the first single-party elected government in Thailand's history. The main opposition party, Pak Prachatipat (Democratic Party), had hoped to secure 201 seats to prevent a TRT majority but conceded defeat long before the ballots were completely counted. The leader of the Democrats, Banyat Bantadtan, has announced he will resign.

"I would like to congratulate Thai Rak Thai for achieving its goal of being a single-party government," Banyat Bantadtan, leader of the Pak Prachatipat is quoted by the Independent as saying. "I would like to encourage the two other opposition parties to join the Democrat party in monitoring the government for the benefit of the people."

TRT has promised to eradicate poverty, by spending $60 billion on new infrastructure and pushing ahead with privatisation of state firms against fierce opposition from unions. Cheap loans and subsidised healthcare for Thailand’s poor rural areas sweetened the deal.

History and issues

Already making history as the first elected PM to serve a full term, Thaksin is widely viewed as turning the recent Tsunami disaster into a political asset. When five- to eight-thousand Thais and foreign tourists were killed in the disaster, Mr. Thaksin responded by touring affected regions, refusing international aid loans, and promising farmers, fishermen, and the tourism industry support and compensation.

Thailand's economic growth rate during the past term in office had broken 6 per cent, second only to China, and rural income soared by 20 per cent.

Another big issue during the previous term was conflict between security forces and Muslim insurgents in the three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala. With around 10-30,000 troops on duty guarding polling stations, no overt violence arose during the vote, although there had been around 600 deaths in the past 13 months.

Thaksin himself has been dogged by conflict-of-interest and nepotism allegations, including in 2001 charges of concealing financial assets, which could have put him out of politics for five years. A controversial 2003 campaign against drug users was widely seen as amounting to simple assassination of drug dealers, with several hundreds or thousands of alleged extra-judicial killings condemned by the United Nations.

After first entering Thai politics in 1994 as head of the anti-corruption Palang Dharma Party, the multi-billionaire head of telecom giant Shin Corporation had set about building TRT for the 2001 election. Forming a coalition from previous parties and factions, Thaksin was seated as PM with 248 seats of 438 to TRT.

"Free, but not fair"

Election officials said there were 146 allegations of fraud which merited investigation, with opposition and independent observers saying that vote buying had started weeks ago. However, more than 70 percent of the 44.8 million eligible voters cast ballots in the country's population of 62 million.

"The election may be free, but I don't think fair," said Somsri Hananuntasuk of the Asian Network for Free Elections, citing reports that party workers were paying Bangkok slum dwellers 200 baht ($5.21) each for votes.

Officials were reportedly planning to confiscate mobile phones at polling booths and to arrest voters who snapped a picture of their completed ballot papers with a camera phone as proof to claim a payment, though whether any such incidents occurred is unknown.

Two Election Commission volunteers were killed in the south by gunmen during campaigning last month, but, according to General Kowit Wattana, Thailand’s police chief, “Ambushes and killings of candidates are down from four years ago.”