Thaksin’s pro-poor policies vindicated

Voters like Samon Somboon, a 39-year-old mother of five who makes a living collecting junk and scrap metal off the streets of Bangkok, find themselves on the side of victory. So, too, Thongdee Sungsuntia, one of the Thai capital’s many taxi drivers. They closed ranks with the others in Thailand’s largest constituency, the urban and rural poor, to deliver unequivocal support for the People Power Party (PPP) at the first general election held since the September 2006 coup. The PPP won 228 of the 480 parliamentary seats; 31 political parties were vying for at Sunday’s poll, according to unofficial results from the country’s Elections Commission (EC).

The PPP’s dominance at the election — although short of a simple majority — enables it to make the first bid at forming the next government by inviting some of the smaller parties that won seats in the lower house to form a coalition. Samak Sundaravej, a combative 72-year-old political war-horse who led the PPP, confirmed his intentions on Sunday night at the party’s headquarters. “I will be the next prime minister for sure,” Samak, a former governor of Bangkok, told a packed press conference.

But the party that secured the second highest number of seats, the Democrat Party, with 164, has the potential of stealing a march over the PPP if it can attract more coalition partners into its fold. The Democrats, led by the youthful-looking Abhisit Vejjajiva, recorded impressive gains in the Bangkok, the powerful political and economic centre of the country. They won 26 out of the 36 seats in the capital that were up for grabs.

This election, however, was more than a tussle for political power between the PPP, the Democrats and other smaller parties. It was also a test of popular sentiment for the junta, which grabbed power during last year’s putsch, driving out of office the twice-elected PM Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai or TRT) party.

During the campaign, the PPP openly identified itself with the TRT, which, together with its 111 leaders, was banned from politics early this year by a special military tribunal. The PPP promised to implement the welfare policies that made the TRT popular with the country’s rural and urban poor, resulting in two victories at the 2001 and 2005 parliamentary elections. Among the pro-poor initiatives were a universal healthcare programme and financial assistance to boost the economy. “The results show that the military has little legitimacy in ruling the country over the past 15 months,” Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said. “

Thaksin has also been vindicated by this poll, he added. “It was quite clear that there is still deeply embedded support for Thaksin’s pro-poor policies. The charge made by the middle class and the rich that Thaksin had previously won by cheating has been proved otherwise.” A similar reality that has exposed the political divisions in this South-east Asian nation — between the middle class and richer Thais against the poor and those who identify with the marginalised — was evident in August. During that month, a new constitution drafted by a pro-military political establishment was approved in a referendum by a slender majority. Those who voted ‘no’ and abstained from that plebiscite accounted for nearly two-thirds of the 44.2 million eligible voters. — IPS