The business-woman, Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of the controversial former prime minister, the tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, was chosen by Thailand’s parliament as the country’s 28th prime minister on 5 August.
She is the first female prime minister of the country. At the age of 44, she is also the youngest female prime minister in the world. This comes after the Pheu Thai Party led by Thaksin supporters won the 3 July general elections by an absolute majority. Winning 265 out of 500 parliamentary seats, they have built alliances with smaller parties to form a 300-seat coalition.
On paper, Yingluk’s government seems stable. It has 60 per cent support in parliament, a weakened anti-Thaksin movement and a lack of support for the military at this stage. But much of the unresolved social and economic dissatisfaction in society could trigger new conflicts. Thailand has gone through many military coups, interventions by the monarchy and the removal of prime ministers through uprisings and protests. All these changes of government have safeguarded the interests of the capitalist class while neglecting the needs of the working class and rural poor.
The new prime minister will have no ‘honeymoon’ period. The ‘red shirt’ supporters and the lower and middle income people that voted for her will demand that she fulfils her ‘populist’ election pledges. These included a sharp increase in the minimum wage, the construction of high-speed rail lines, providing free computers to primary school students and revamping the country’s healthcare system. The poor in the countryside hope that Yingluck will emulate Thaksin – the first Thai prime minister seen to address the needs of millions of people with cheap healthcare and village development funds from 2001 to 2005. For the urban population he was seen as corrupt and authoritarian, with a neo-liberal agenda and operating a crony capitalism.
The capitalist class in Thailand has already come out against the ‘populist’ promises of Yingluck. They believe they will undermine the country’s international competitiveness as well as increase inflation and the budget deficit, since such measures could cost as much as $77 billion over the next five years. Some corporations have already threatened to move their companies out of Thailand if Yingluck’s government raises the minimum wage. To appease the business class, the new government is expected to cut corporation tax. But an increase in public debt (expected to rise to 60% of GDP) and the growing uncertainty in the world economy could pressurise the government not to go too far with their ‘populist’ election promises and damage the capitalist economy.
Yingluk could also face tough challenges in having to pacify both the rural ‘red-shirted’ supporters of her brother and the urban ‘yellow-shirted’ supporters of the military and the elite who clashed with each other after the ousting in 2006 of Thaksin by a military coup. This was carried out in the interests of the business class and the elite, linked to the monarchy and the military, who felt excluded from Thaksin’s crony capitalism. Conflicts between the ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ groupings had also undermined the previous four governments.
Last year, the red-shirt supporters occupied certain parts of Bangkok, including its commercial centre, and suffered a military crackdown ordered by the ‘Democrat’ government of Abhisit. The army killed more than 90 people and hundreds more were injured. Yingluck has been described as Thaksin’s ‘clone’ and any of her moves will be scrutinized by the yellow-shirt supporters and the Democrat Party. If she seems to be favouring Thaksin and his red-shirt supporters, they could launch mass protests an occupations of their own, as they did during the previous government linked to Thaksin.
Yingluck under the shadow of Thaksin
Yingluck, who has never held political office before, was the president of a property company owned by the family. Just a few months ago she was urged by Thaksin to lead the Pheu Thai Party. It was in disarray with different factions fighting for the top post. Yingluck was chosen to end the bickering and win the elections. It is well known that Thaksin is the de facto leader and funder of the Pheu Thai party, as well as being involved in the planning of the election victory from his exile in Dubai. By using her ‘gentle and charming character’, Yingluck has not only garnered the votes of the red-shirt supporters of Thaksin but also the sympathetic votes of women, as well as support from some sections of the urban business class. Those who supported the red-shirts also used the election to send a protest message to the military and traditional elite, who had backed the Democrat Party of Abhisit.
Recently, Thaksin met Thailand’s ministerial hopefuls in Dubai and Brunei. This shows how he will try to continuously and meticulously use his authority in the party to plan the policies of the Yingluck government and the direction it takes. Yingluck, however, who came to power with her brother’s blessing, does not want to be seen as his puppet. Before agreeing that Thaksin can return to Thailand, she will act cautiously to avoid angering the yellow-shirt supporters, which could lead her government into trouble.
Thaksin is also known to have good relations with the Cambodian prime minister, Hun Sen, and could use the election outcome to try and soften the ongoing border dispute between Thailand and Cambodia. But any move that puts Thailand at a disadvantage, or even compromises its position, could particularly upset the nationalists linked to the monarchy and military.
If a political amnesty was implemented to allow Thaksin to return to Thailand, annulling the Supreme Court sentence of two years in jail for helping his ex-wife while he was prime minister to buy state land in 2003, it could lead to renewed street protests by yellow-shirt supporters.
There are also uncertainties surrounding the inevitable succession crisis once the ailing King dies. This could politically impact on Yingluck since Thaksin was not seen as being on good terms with the palace.
Socialists and populism
The right-wing populism of Thaksin, when he was in government between 2001 and 2005, attracted the rural poor. This was in the absence of a mass working class organisation that, aligned to poor farmers in the countryside, could have addressed their needs with a clear political alternative. At that time, the leading organisations in the countryside such as the ‘Assembly of the Poor’ uncritically supported Thaksin’s populism because he had addressed some of the demands of the poor farmers. Unfortunately, the leadership of the Assembly of the Poor, with some former members of the Communist Party of Thailand who orientated towards Maoism and NGO activism, had no clear political alternative to explain the capitalist character of the Thaksin regime.
At that time, like the rural poor, the working class in Bangkok had also been severely affected by the 1997 Asian financial crisis when the country plunged into political turmoil. The Chavalit government collapsed after just one year because of the crisis. The new government of the Democrat Party led by Chuan Leekpai, from 1997 to 2001, carried through huge cuts. It overturned the concessions for the rural poor, won through massive street protests in Bangkok by the Assembly of the Poor during Chavalit’s administration.
In the 2001 elections, Thaksin won mainly because of his populist agenda for the rural poor who were severely affected by the Asian financial crisis. The leadership of the Assembly of the Poor cultivated a cooperative relationship with him without taking a critical approach towards his pro-capitalist politics. Meanwhile, Thaksin cultivated populist support in an attempt to defend himself against being forced to step down by the constitutional court on charges that he had deliberately concealed his wealth. Later Thaksin, when there was reasonable economic growth in the country, consciously utilised populist policies to maintain support from the majority of rural voters and maintain his power in government. He also used his position in government to amass wealth for himself and his cronies. He assisted international and national capitalists to accumulate profits by exploiting the labour of the working class and the rural poor. The hypocrisy of Thaksin showed that he was not a friend of workers and poor farmers, and simply used them to maintain his own power and pursue his capitalist agenda.
During the recent election, some groups on the left also uncritically supported Yingluck’s populism merely to defeat the Democrat government linked to the monarchy, military and traditional elites. They still have some illusions in the so-called ‘progressive bourgeoisie’ or ‘lesser evilism’. They have not learnt from previous experiences of the left in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries where the same mistakes were made of aligning uncritically with capitalist parties promising democracy. In the current economic circumstances, Yingluck could face far greater difficulty fulfilling the demands of the working class and rural poor and will be under pressure to revitalise profit-oriented activities and programmes for Thai capitalism.
Economic and social instability
The economic growth rates and social conditions in Thailand and the world are now very different from those during the Thaksin government. Currently, the uncertain economic situation in the US, with the deep credit crunch that started in 2008-09, and the contagious European debt crisis have demonstrated that the global capitalist economy is in one of its most serious crises in history and has an uncertain path to recovery.
Countries like Thailand, with GDP growth of around 4 percent, are very dependent on China and other neighbouring countries for economic growth at this time. However, the Chinese economic growth model is becoming inherently unstable based on massive overcapacity and overinvestment. With the threat of a real slow-down in China and the prolonged uncertainty in the global economy, Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries are very vulnerable; another ‘Asian Financial Crisis’ cannot be ruled out.
Although the majority of the Thai population is still involved in agricultural activities, the manufacturing industries and service sectors in Bangkok and other urban areas have been the main contributors to the Thai economy. Landlordism and other feudal economic relations and activities have slowly been integrated into the capitalist economy with the rapid industrialisation that started in the 1980s. Thai capitalism has increased the wealth of national and multinational capitalists, neglecting the working class and poor farmers’ social and democratic needs. This shows the role of the working class: even where they are a minority, they contribute most to the profits of the capitalist class.
This reinforces the importance of building an independent political party with the working class playing the leading role, at the same time aligning itself to poor farmers, youth and others oppressed by the system. This is vital in order to counter the pro-capitalist policies as well as the political opportunism and right-wing populism of Thaksin Shinawatra and now Yingluck. Such a party should also be based on democratic socialism as the alternative to the capitalist agenda. It should draw up perspectives, programmes and tactics for the struggle of the working class, poor farmers and others oppressed by the system.
Only through this, a genuine effort to replace a government based on the profit-oriented and socio-political needs of capitalism with a workers’ and poor farmers’ government, could the restoration of justice and the needs of all be carried out. When it comes to power, such a government would have to nationalise the big corporations and banks in order to democratically plan the fulfilment of the needs of the working class, poor and youth. It would proceed to build solidarity with the struggles of the working class and poor in Southeast Asia and internationally with the aim of building a democratic socialist society world-wide.