Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Party Fabrication: Constitutional Reform and the Rise of Thai Rak Thai

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Party Fabrication: Constitutional Reform and the Rise of Thai Rak Thai

Article excerpt

Among the most interesting questions in Thai politics today is how to account for the rise and (until recently) the success of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party. This article describes and analyzes some of the factors that contributed to the rise and success of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai, arguing that neither Thaksin's personal assets nor the effects of the crisis are enough to explain Thai Rak Thai's rise and success. It focuses instead on the 1997 changes to Thailand's constitution. These institutional reforms were crucial because they altered Thailand's political-institutional landscape in fundamental ways. The reforms provided new opportunities and incentives for political actors that Thaksin and his party adeptly took advantage of. The argument presented is that the key reforms that helped pave the way for the rise of Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai were those reforms that helped reduce the number of political parties and that increased the power of the prime minister relative to coalition partners and intraparty factions.

KEYWORDS: Thailand, elections, political parties, democracy, institutions, reform, Thaksin, Southeast Asia

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Among the most interesting questions in Thai politics today is how to account for the rise and success of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party. Thai Rak Thai's 2001 electoral victory brought an (impermanent?) end to a short-lived multiparty coalition government that had been the norm throughout Thailand's democratic/semidemocratic history. As prime minister, Thaksin has been a polarizing figure both inside and outside Thailand. He has overseen the rebound of the Thai economy from the depths of the Asian economic crisis. As head of a majority party--a novel thing for democratic Thailand--he is the first elected prime minister to serve out a full four-year term, and his party was re-elected in a landslide in 2005. Under his direction, the government has launched a series of bold policy initiatives, including bureaucratic reform, decentralization and local elections, social welfare policies aimed at Thailand's rural poor, and a campaign against illegal drugs.

At the same time, Thaksin is criticized for his attempts to muzzle his critics in the press and academia while moving to marginalize his institutional and political rivals. (1) Thailand's provinces in the deep South have erupted in a cycle of violence that shows no signs of abating. Some of the government's bold policy initiatives have produced some troubling consequences, such as a dramatic rise in rural indebtedness and 2,000-plus extrajudicial killings during the government's war on drugs. Since 2001, we can observe what some have called the "Thaksinization" of Thailand. (2) Political and economic power has been centralized around the TRT and, more specifically, around Thaksin and his closest associates. (3) Allegations of corruption, cronyism, and nepotism increasingly dog the party and its leader. (4) In general, Thaksin's critics contend that he has overseen (or carried out) a deterioration of democracy in Thailand in an attempt to centralize political power and create a dominant party for Thailand in the style of the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) or the People's Action Party (PAP). (5)

However, Thaksin's attempts to create a lasting, dominant party recently experienced a setback. The sale of Shin Corp (founded by Thaksin and still owned by his family) to a Singaporean firm for a substantial, tax-free profit in January of 2006 was more fodder for those who claimed Thaksin was bending government to his personal economic advantage. (6) Protests in the wake of the sale eventually led Thaksin to call new elections and step down as prime minister. (7) While Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai may very well survive this crisis and continue as a political force for years to come, now is a good opportunity to look back over the course of Thai politics since the constitutional reforms in 1997. …

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