Saturday, February 05, 2005

Four More Years Of Thaksin's Revolution

Thais go to the polls tomorrow and the outcome looks a foregone conclusion. There are useful overviews of the election campaign here and here. All indications show that the Thai Rak Thai party of the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, will romp to victory. When Thaksin - who was a billionaire telecommunications mogul before entering politics - came to power in 2001 it was on what many saw as a neo-populist, nationalist platform aimed at small businesses and farmers. He even made promises to curb the pervasive influence of the IMF in the Thai economy. The real significance of that election was that, for the first time, the domestic capitalist class - the local tycoons - took control of the state. Dominated by the interests of big domestic capital Thaksin has begun a fundamental restructuring and reform of Thailand's economy. Whatever the populist claims the Thai Rak Thai government has been one by and for the rich. They seem to have taken to heart Marx and Engels's famous dictum that "[t]he executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie".

The economic thrust may be new but the methods to maintain political power are familiar: Thaksin has pursued an authoritarian crackdown on political dissent, including extra-judicial killings and the militarisation of the conflict in the Muslim South; he sought to sideline smaller parties in the parliament through mergers and cooptation thus limiting parliamentary scrutiny; he has made moves to check the demands of civil society, including the media, and to impose social discipline on labour. And during the election campaign itself Thaksin has not been shy to use the old standbys of vote buying, personalistic ties and clientelism.

Thaksin's revolution can best be described as "new economics, old politics". He once said that he needed to maintain power for 8 to 16 years to embed his project. And he has been both skilful and ruthless in realigning social forces around a new state project and hegemonic vision. At his final campaign rally, Thaksin offered this pithy insight into his neo-populist, capitalist revolution: "
You have a prime minister who is a capitalist, and so I am good at finding capital for the people". He looks as if he's well on his way to another four years in power.


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