However, Thaksin's sometimes heavy-handed governing style and prickly attitude towards criticism wasn’t to everyone's liking. And while Thailand’s long-standing socio-economic inequalities needed addressing, Thaksin's economic legacy isn’t seen as positive by everyone. Prao Pan, an economics student from Nakhon Sawan, says that Thaksinomics ‘are not sustainable,’ adding that ‘you can’t run a country the same as you manage a business.’
Despite being absent from Thailand for over three years, Thaksin looms large over the election. His youngest sister Yingluck is the photogenic Peau Thai campaign figurehead, and despite being a political novice, has seemingly impressed Thai voters with her cautious and non-confrontational rhetoric. She would become Thailand's first woman prime minister if elected. However, the Democrats are trying to pigeonhole Yingluck as a mere mouthpiece for her brother. Given that one of the Peua Thai campaign slogans is ‘Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai does,’ they might have a point.
The Democrats have reminded voters that Thaksin is on the run after fleeing a two year prison sentence for abuse of power while in office, hoping that swing voters might be swayed their way by evoking memories of last year's violence and arson in Bangkok, which they have tried to pin on Thaksin, and by the prospect of an amnesty for Thaksin should Peua Thai win.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
However, in a controversial rally held at the same high-rise shopping mall intersection where the Thai Army violently dispersed the Red Shirt protest rally on May 19 last year, Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban sought to distance the government and the army from the killings during the 2010 Red Shirt protests. In contrast, eyewitness accounts and human rights groups say that the army fired on civilian protestors, contravening Thai and international law.
On Thursday, Army Chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha issued his latest denial that the military would launch a coup in the event of post-election violence or a Peua Thai win. However, in a country that has seen 18 coups or coup attempts since absolute monarchy was ditched in favour of a constitutional format in 1932, it might seem to many that the general doth protest too much. He appeared twice on Thai TV recently, asking voters to vote for ‘good people’ and vowing to protect the monarchy, perhaps undermining his claim that the military doesn’t intervene in politics. In Thailand's smoke-and-mirrors political discourse, euphemism and allusion take precedence over straight talk, and the general's exhortation was likely code for ‘anyone but Peua Thai.’
And if the army looms in the background, Thailand's 'institution' – the monarchy in other words – looms large over the army and politics in general, and there have been a number of high-profile lèse majesté arrests in recent years, with some cases bordering on the absurd. However some Thais, not only the army chief, remain supportive of the ‘institution.’
‘The reds say bad against the King,’ says 28-year-old Withun, who declined to give his full name. ‘That is why I will vote for Abhisit.’ Concerns among some Thai lawmakers and army officers that Thaksin's popularity in some regions and sectors of Thai society posed a threat to the monarchy was likely a factor behind the 2006 coup, and could be resurrected if Peua Thai wins and Thaksin attempts to come home.
Given Thailand's recent history, predictions of post-election violence, protests and coups are unsurprising, not least given that the octogenarian King Bhumibol Adulyadej, has been in hospital since September 2009, prompting speculation that a succession crisis looms. But talk of a behind-the-scenes face-saving deal negotiated between Thaksin, the monarchy and the Democrats has come out in recent days, summed up in a June 29 article by Shawn Crispin in Asia Times Online. If the deal is real, and all parties honour it, it could bring about a hiatus to Thailand's cycle of coups and protests.
Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, Los Angeles Times, South China Morning Post, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, Sunday Business Post and others.