Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Friday, 12 December 2008

Thailand reverts to old-style politics

Veteran Thai politician Newin Chidnob receiving roses from Abhisit Vejjajiva ( in the background)
Newin Chidchob (right) has decided to side with the Democrats

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Bangkok

"It's over, Boss." With those three words, veteran politician Newin Chidchob finally broke the deadlock that has paralysed Thailand for the past three years.

They were uttered in a phone conversation with Thaksin Shinawatra last week, the man to whom Mr Newin had been faithful for almost eight years, as the exiled former prime minister pleaded with him to reconsider his decision to defect to the opposition Democrats.

Mr Newin was also the first to break the bonds of money and genuine loyalty which have made the Thaksinistas the most powerful political force in Thailand for the past decade.

And he shattered any final illusions that might still have been harboured here that, a decade ago, Thailand's politics had entered a new age with the adoption of a new, populist constitution, and the rise of a new, populist party.

For Newin Chidchob has now reverted to type - the type being a provincial strongman, schooled in the rough-house politics of one of Thailand's roughest neighbourhoods, Buri Ram, who simply sells his team of MPs to the highest bidder.

This is what Mr Newin (who was named by his father after the notorious Burmese General Ne Win) did before the formation of Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party in 1998. It is what every other provincial godfather did.

Corruption scandals

Thaksin Shinawatra
Thaksin Shinawatra brought a new style of politics to Thailand

These men dominated business and politics in their regions, offering voters a tantalising vision of abundant new development money if their votes gave the faction a shot at a cabinet position.

They would then collect as many loyal MPs around them as they could after the election campaign, which they funded generously, and offer the support of those MPs in parliament to whichever prospective government made them the most attractive offer.

This practice delivered Thailand a succession of short-lived, messy coalition governments in the 1990s, better known for corruption scandals than good governance.

It was under such governments - in which Mr Newin participated - that Thailand sleep-walked into the catastrophic 1997 financial crisis.

Appalled by the calibre of their politicians, Thailand's middle-class applauded the birth of a new constitution in the same year - the country's 16th, but the first to be drawn up after extensive consultation with NGOs and other representatives of civil society.

A party emerges

This constitution was the first to enshrine protection of human rights and freedom of expression. It created a number of independent bodies that were given legal powers to rein in corruption.

But the new charter also had another objective. Several of its articles, like the one restricting MPs' freedom to jump from one party to another, were intended to strengthen political parties in the hope that Thailand would progress to a more stable parliamentary system, as in western Europe.

Its drafters hoped this would nurture a new breed of clean, professional politicians to replace the corrupt old godfathers.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, left, listens to Newin Chidchob, right ( Tues 9th Dec)
Newin (right) was once an enemy of Democrat leader Abhisit (left)

One of those goals, producing stronger parties, was realised with surprising speed.

Thaksin Shinawatra, an ambitious provincial businessman who had made a fortune from telecoms, and managed to keep it during the financial crisis, built a new-style party called Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais).

It used modern marketing methods and a raft of new, populist policies to win the support of the rural electorate. It encouraged mass party membership, and its appeal went right over the heads of the godfathers, making Mr Thaksin an instant political superstar.

The godfathers did not go away. Instead, recognising this new political phenomenon, they opted to move under the Thai Rak Thai umbrella. Newin Chidchob was one of them.

Mr Thaksin's wealth and personal popularity gave him a far stronger hand in dealing with the godfathers than any other party in Thailand's history, so his governments were not crippled by the demands of coalition partners, as his predecessors had been.

In 2001 he won his first election, and became the first prime minister in Thai history to complete a four year term in office. In the 2005 election he became the first prime minister to win an outright majority.

He inspired passionate loyalty among his lieutenants, among them Mr Newin, and he left the Democrats, Thailand's oldest party, floundering.

Thailand seemed to have put the era of weak coalition governments behind it.

Fading force

The story of how Mr Thaksin turned a position of such strength into his situation today - where he is a fading political force, stuck in exile - has been written about extensively elsewhere.

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But it is only now, when the newspapers are carrying front-page photographs of the clean-cut Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva giving a bunch of roses to Newin Chidchob, once the mortal enemy of the Democrats and every bit the old-style godfather, that it is clear Thailand has come full-circle.

After three years of turmoil, old politics is back, where politicians of whatever persuasion can climb into bed with whoever gives them a shot at power.

It is a depressing scenario, one which finally buries all the high hopes that were raised by the 1997 constitution.

Doubtless many of those now embracing old politics again, perhaps even Mr Abhisit and Mr Newin, do not feel particularly good about it.

Blame for this will be fired in many directions - at Mr Thaksin, at the military, at the Democrats, at the monarchy even, whose role in recent events is till unclear.

But at a time when Thailand is confronting its worst economic outlook since the disastrous events of 1997, old politics is unlikely to give it a government capable of meeting the challenge.

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