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Monday, 31 December, 2001, 13:08 GMT
Thailand's new style of leader
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is mobbed by reporters, August 2001
Mr Thaksin was cleared of financial wrong-doing
Jonathan Head

Thailand ushered in a new style of prime minister in 2001.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a charismatic and wealthy businessman who made millions in the telecommunications industry, ran a populist campaign in the January elections, borrowing heavily from US-style politics.

It worked, giving his newly-formed Thai Rak Thai party the largest number of seats ever won in Thailand.


He always says what he thinks, and sometimes what he thinks might not sound good to other people

Thaksin Shinawatra's spokesman, Suranand Vejajiva
Thaksin Shinawatra offered the electorate something different from his rivals - not the usual diet of familiar old political faces, but policies instead.

His campaign speeches went down well, with a population weary of more than three years of economic pain.

Critics argued that his populist platform was unrealistic. But close friends insisted that his personal qualities would see him through.

"He is a fighter, he never gives up - he wants to make the country ready to come back, to recover, to move forward," said former Finance Minister Thanong Bidaya.

Friends and foes

The new administration got off to a good start - a scheme to offer cheap healthcare to poorer Thais was underway within the first three months - and the prime minister quickly fulfilled his promise to the millions of farmers who had voted for him, by providing $20,000 in cheap credit to every village.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, right,  gives his team's shirt to Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra at a friendly match in July 2001 between Thailand and Manchester United
Mr Thaksin is seen as a man of the people
But while his policies were winning Mr Thaksin friends, his public comments often had the opposite effect.

In a speech to an international economic forum in April, he argued that Thailand did not need to rely on foreign advice and investment to revive its economy - remarks he later had to qualify.

Just a few days later he supported a Thai politician who claimed to have discovered enough gold in a cave to pay off the entire national debt - the gold did not exist, and the Prime Minister was left with egg on his face.

Mr Thaksin's spokesman, Suranand Vejajiva, said the prime minister's habit of speaking his mind came from his business background.

"He's not a real politician in that sense, he always says what he thinks, and sometimes what he thinks might not sound good to other people," said Mr Suranand. "It's a businessman style, and I think that's good, because in this globalised world, you have to run a government like a corporation."

Cleared

The biggest problem hanging over the new prime minister, though, was a judgement against him by Thailand's newly-created Corruption Commission - even before he was elected, it found he had failed to disclose all of his wealth, as required by tough new guidelines for government officials.


They decided to compromise the constitutional principle and the rule of law

Sunai Pasuk, Asian Network for Free Elections
If upheld by the constitutional court, he would automatically have been disqualified from office.

At the beginning of August large crowds gathered outside the court to hear the verdict - in the eyes of many Thais, Mr Thaksin had committed only a minor transgression, and his party mounted a sustained campaign to have the charge thrown out. Despite the strong evidence against the prime minister, the judges capitulated to public pressure.

Mr Thaksin's supporters were jubilant, and the prime minister himself was visibly relieved not to have lost his job.

But the decision disappointed reformists,

"They decided to compromise the constitutional principle and the rule of law with the hope that Thaksin as a person can rescue the country, and to meet the demands of the people for strong leadership," said Sunai Pasuk, of the Asian Network for Free Elections.

Falling popularity

As the year drew to a close, though, it became clear that Mr Thaksin was unable to fulfill his most important promise - that he could turn his personal success as a businessman into success for the nation.

Despite the short-term benefits of his feel-good policies for the poor, the economy remains stuck in first gear.

Dr Somchai Phaka-phag-vivat, a political scientist at Thammasat University, said this posed the greatest threat to Mr Thaksin's popularity.

"People have high hopes because he promised so much," he said. "That is why people have a lot of criticism when they promised that after the election the Thai economy - people will be happy, everything will be okay.

"But if you look at the macro-level, the indicators all point to a drastic drop."

Nearly a year after his stunning election victory, the self-styled CEO of Thailand has seen his popular ratings drop from around 80%, to just 50% - still impressive for a leader grappling with a prolonged economic crisis, but a sign, perhaps, that the people of Thailand now have more realistic expectations.

His closest advisors, like Suranand Vejajiva, are toning down their claims for what Mr Thaksin can do for the country.

"One man can't perform miracles and you know, the CEO alone cannot do - in every company - but I think we have a better understanding, with politicians, with the bureaucrats, with the people of Thailand, that it's not the government's job alone, but it's the whole country which has to work together, and work hard enough, to get through this crisis," said Mr Suranand.

There is little doubt, though, that Thaksin Shinawatra has made his mark on the Thai political system, as it evolves from the military dictatorships of the past, into what is already one of Asia's most vibrant democracies.

He was the first prime minister to be elected on a comprehensive platform of policies - and he could, in three years time, become the first leader to be voted out of office for failing to deliver on those policies.

See also:

09 Feb 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai parliament votes Thaksin as PM
03 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai PM acquitted in assets case
18 Jun 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai PM declares innocence
04 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thai PM hits back at probe
03 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Thailand's billionaire PM
03 May 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Thailand
03 May 01 | Asia-Pacific
Timeline: Thailand
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