Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The looming return of the tycoon

The military and Bangkok's snooty middle classes booted him out of power, sent him to exile, and banned his Thai Rak Thai Party, but Thaksin Shinawatra is now poised to retake the leadership of Thailand as his political supporters, rallying under the banner of the newly-constituted People' Power Party and promising his return, won half of the parliamentary seats contested in the last elections.

No revenge for a politician could have tasted sweeter. Some deposed populist leaders took years and years to plot their return (Newsweek notes here that it took Argentina's hugely popular Juan Peron eighteen years), but Thaksin might just make it back in a little less than two years. Speaking in Hong Kong, Thaksin said he will return sometime between February and April. (His political enemies probably want to mark his return on the Ides of March, better to finish him off.)

Many say Thaksin's return bodes ill for Thailand. His politics polarized the country and draw attention the the gap between the affluent and liberal Thailand, on one hand hand, and the poor, rural Thailand on the other, not unlike what Joseph Estrada did to the Philippines.

Another contrast is that the leader of the opposition is exactly the sort of leader that stereotypically sweeps the middle classes off their feet: Abhisit Vejjajiva has movie-star good looks and a Western education.

The issue that the Thais will face next year is the essential problem of democratic majoritarian rule: What should a conscientious minority middle class properly do when its choice of a leader is resoundingly rejected by the poor majority that has ideas of its own?

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