Monday, March 03, 2008

Thailand: Who is the 'real' Premier?

Source: IPS

The debate as to who the ‘’real’’ political leader of the country is has snowballed since Thursday, following the return of ousted prime minster Thaksin Shinawatra after 17 months in exile. Thaksin, who led his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai - TRT) party to two thumping election victories, was driven from power in September 2006, in a military coup.

Current Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej could not have put it more bluntly on Friday. ‘’I am the real prime minister,’’ the combative Samak snapped back when pressed by reporters about his position in Thailand’s political hierarchy. ‘’How can you say there are two prime ministers? I am no one’s nominee.’’

But the question posed by Thai journalists on the eve of Samak’s departure to Laos may not easily melt away. For Samak, who led the People Power Party (PPP) to victory at last December’s general election, enabling him to form the current coalition government, has little links with the party. He was invited to lead the PPP in a political deal Thaksin cooked up while in exile.

‘’He has no loyalists in the PPP who will back him. There is no one in the party who owes him anything,’’ says Michael Nelson, a German academic who has written extensively on Thai political parties. ‘’He was drafted to be the leader. He is a figurehead placed on top.’’

Such an arrangement is rare in Thai politics, where parties reflect the patronage system that runs deep in this South-east Asian country. ‘’Normally, the prime minister would first be the head of his own party, with members owing an allegiance to the leader,’’ Nelson explained in an interview. ‘’I can’t think of such a strange situation happening before. Samak is in a sense vulnerable.’’

A former minister during the last Thaskin-led government, (2001-2006), has a similar view. ‘’It is hard to tell who is in charge of the PPP,’’ Chaturon Chaiseng told a small group of reporters. ‘’Samak is the prime minister; he is not the head of the main party leading the coalition.’’

Thaksin, by contrast, personified the powerful party boss during his years as the head of the TRT government. The billionaire telecommunication tycoon commanded loyalty. He brooked little criticism. And during his five-and-a-half-years as Thailand’s leader, what Thaksin wanted by way of policies he mostly got.

Samak hardly enjoys such luxuries. And signs of his vulnerability were heightened by the PPP parliamentarians who have flocking to visit Thaksin at the plush riverside Peninsular Hotel where he is staying. The ousted premier was also met at the airport on Thursday morning by a senior PPP cabinet minister.

The Thai media have not helped Samak’s cause. Commentators are reluctant to believe that Thaksin will stand by his words, that he will stay away from politics. During his first press conference on Thursday, Thailand’s longest serving prime minister said that his flight home after spending most of his time in London was to clear his name and that of his family’s from charges brought against them.

On Thurday, after being welcomed at the airport by thousands of adoring supporters, Thaksin was taken to the Supreme Court and the attorney general’s office to get bail for two cases involving corruption, conflict of interest and asset concealment. He was released after paying nine million baht (300,350 US dollars) in bail for the cases, where both he and his wife are charged.

The spectre of Thaksin’s presence in Thailand chipping away at Samak’s legitimacy is also rooted in the former having an influential role in creating the PPP as a successor to the TRT, which was disbanded in mid-2007 by a military-appointed tribunal for violating election laws. Thaksin and 110 other leaders of the TRT were banned from politics for five years.

Samak did not conceal this fact by the message he drummed during the campaign trail for the December poll. The PPP’s policies were the same as that of the TRT, it was announced. That meant a platform advocating pro-poor polices to win the support of the country’s rural and urban poor -- just as Thaksin had done, when he led the TRT to impressive victories in the 2001 and 2005 polls.

And if it is not Thaksin he has to worry about, Samak also has to deal with the military challenging the prime minster’s authority. The week Thaksin came home, a powerful law giving the military wide powers came into effect. Under the new Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) law, the military has powers in times of a ‘’security threat’’ to impose curfews, prevent public rallies and even restrict the authority of government officials.

‘’The ISOC law will allow the military to play a legitimate role in Thai politics,’’ says Panitan Wattanayagorn, a national security expert at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University. ‘’Article three gives the military powers to search, to arrest, to contain crowds if it sees a threat to the country’s security.’’

On Feb. 1, another law that aimed to strengthen the military’s role at the expense of an elected civilian leader came into effect. Under this law, military commanders will have greater say in the annual promotion military officers in the country than the defence minister, a cabinet position that Samak also holds.

The military, which staged Thailand’s 18th coup in 2006, pushed through these two laws during the 16 months that it held power in an effort to retain a decisive role in the post-coup climate. Samak ‘’is upset with (the new) Defence Ministry law,’’ wrote Thanong Kanthong, managing editor of ‘The Nation’ newspaper in a recent commentary. ‘’He was not aware of it. Neither was ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.’’

By Marwaan Macan-Markar
Original article: POLITICS-THAILAND: Asking the 'Real' Premier to Stand Up
Republished with permission
Copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and