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Thailand - Politics 2000-2006

The first-ever elections to the Senate were held in 2000, and, in January 2001 one party the Phak Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai Party) won an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Because of widespread allegations of illegal election practices, new polling took place in February in some constituencies. The Thai Rak Thai, having merged with another party since the January election, still won the absolute majority of seats, but a coalition government with the New Aspiration Party and Chat Thai was established.

Police Lieutenant Colonel and telecommunications billionaire Thaksin Chinnawat [Shinawatra] became prime minister. Thaksin was very rich. According to Forbes, after distributing some of his assets to his children, the PM was the third richest man in Thailand (after Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi, Chairman, TCC Group, who owned Chang beer and had extensive real estate and hotel holdings, and Chalieo Yuwittaya, who produced the "Red Bull" energy drink). Thaksin had been driven out of the Foreign Ministerial portfolio in 1994 because he refused to make public his assets. He entered his Prime Ministry in 2001 under a cloud when he finally grudgingly gave up control of his wealth - and even then only to his wife, children and, in one memorable instance, his servants.

Thaksin Shinawatra and his new Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party had won a decisive plurality victory on a populist platform of economic growth and development. Thaksin had simply identified voter interests -- using a professional polling outfit -- and then tailored a domestic agenda accordingly. Thaksins premiership was marked by a confident foreign policy, implementation of his populist policies, and accusations of anti-democratic actions, including undermining independent bodies, limiting freedom of the press, and a 2003 war on drugs which led to 1,300 unsolved murders. The Thai Rak Thai was further strengthened in 2002 when it absorbed many members of the New Aspiration Party.

Thaksin set out to stabilize several problematic areas. One was to launch a major anti-drug campaign. Some 2,275 people were killed in a three-month period ending in April 2003, and the government claimed to have eradicated 90 percent of Thailands drug problem. In October 2004, the government launched a second antidrug campaign. Another problem confronting the kingdom was terrorist violence, primarily in the south. In 2002 several police officers were killed, bombs were detonated when the minister of interior toured the violence-prone area, and five schools suffered damage from arsonists. The Thai military attributed these actions to a group thought to be an al Qaeda affiliate and arrested suspected members of Jemaah Islamiah (Community of Islam) in June 2003. They confessed to plotting attacks on embassies in Bangkok and tourist sites. Further arsons and bombings occurred, and attacks on police and army bases in 2004 heightened the terrorist threat. In 2004 alone, more than 500 people died as a result of insurgent and terrorist violence in the south. This loss of life was exacerbated when a massive tsunami hit the Andaman coast on December 26, 2004, killing more than 5,300 Thai and foreigners and leaving another 2,900 reported missing.

Voters on 06 February 2005 selected 400 members of Parliament from constituencies throughout Thailand. They also indicated their preferences for parties in a separate "party list" vote. All parties gaining 5 percent of the national party list vote were eligible for a number of the 100 party list seats in the next Parliament, allocated on a proportional basis according to the votes received.

Polls prior to the election indicated that TRT could win 260-280 constituency seats, and up to 70 party list seats, or potentially close to 350 total seats in the 500 seat Parliament. This indicated that TRT might be able to form a single-party government, one with no coalition partners. The DP, with some support throughout Thailand, and retaining core constituencies in the South, seemed likely to remain the main opposition party with just over 100 total MPs, including some 75-80 constituency seats. Chat Thai, surprisingly, appears to heading for 30-35 constituency seats and maybe the minimum 5 party list seats. Mahachon could win between 10-16 constituency seats, but is not expected to qualify for any party list seats.

On 06 February 2005, Thaksin was re-elected by an overwhelming majority, sweeping 377 out of 500 parliamentary seats for Thailands first-ever single-party outright electoral victory. Dominating the scene as no previous civilian leader had ever done, Thaksin's influence was everywhere. Himself a self-made man from the provinces (according to his myth makers), he successfully tapped into the aspirations of Thailand's millions. And unlike previous regimes that rode into power by buying the loyalties of the rural areas, Thaksin also won over the millions of Bangkok residents who are not from the traditional elite - the mom and pop shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the food stall vendors, department store salespeople and the day laborers. In 2001, for the first time in history, Bangkok voted along with the north, the northeast and the central plains. In 2005, this phenomenon actually grew stronger, as Thaksin's machine swept 32 of Bangkok's 35 seats.

In power, Thaksin took full advantage of the new charter's creation of a strong executive, while distorting, dismantling or delaying the new "watchdog" institutions that were supposed to check and balance that new executive power. The government consistently pressured the media, particularly the broadcast media, to limit dissenting views through threats of libel suits and other means. The government and its allies owned all the major broadcast media, and large shares of the newspaper sector. The government shut down community radio stations and Web sites critical of the ruling party, although these stations were able to reopen. The government and its allies exerted strong pressure on the print media. According to NGOs, including the Thai Journalists Association (TJA), the government controlled the media through direct ownership, the threat of withdrawing financial support and advertisements, constraints on the flow of information, and pressure on journalists and activists.

Thaksin had enjoyed a good relationship with the King during his first term as Prime Minister. The King was particularly grateful that Thaksin had taken steps to improve Crown Property Bureau (CPB) management of its assets, significantly increasing the CPB's wealth. The King's attitude toward him soured after his Thai Rak Thai party won a supermajority (377 out of 500 seats) in the 2005 election. Many figures at the palace felt threatened by his political power and his popularity with rural Thais, who appreciated his commitment to eradicating poverty.

Thaksin cited his decision to sell his Shin Corporation conglomerate to Singaporean investment firm Temasek as a key turning point in his relationship with the King. Thaksin claimed he told the King about the sale in an audience prior to a public announcement. On hearing that Thaksin would sell the conglomerate to a foreign entity, the King reportedly stiffened visibly and asked, "To whom?" Thaksin had not heard the King's question clearly and asked, "Pardon?" The King then erupted, loudly and angrily repeating his question. Thaksin had never before seen the King behave thusly.

After this incident, Thaksin's political opponents effectively went on the offensive; the People's Alliance for Democracy drew substantially more supporters to rallies, had more funding at its disposal, and effectively manipulated the issue of the Shin Corp sale. The Bangkok elite, which embraced him as the next new thing four years earlier, had grown scornful of him, but he actually revelled in thumbing his nose at the capital's chattering classes. Soon after Prime Minister Thaksin's second term began, allegations of corruption emerged against his government. Peaceful anti-government mass demonstrations grew, and hundreds of thousands marched in the streets to demand Thaksin's resignation.

Discontent against Thaksin's government began to grow. The issues focused around a growing concern with Thaksin's effort to dominate the legislature which might lead to a one party rule, his intolerance on criticisms and policy corruption. More importantly "anti-monarchy" elements, the public believed, were given more chance to campaign for their course without sanction from Thaksin's government. The discontent had not been politicized until a mass protest against Thaksin on the issue of policy corruption, conflict of interest and lack of proper respect to the monarchy was organized by Sonthi Limthongkul. The protest turned to be a mass movement known as the yellow shirt movement demanding Thaksin to step down.

Prime Minister Thaksin dissolved the parliament in February 2006 and called snap elections in April. The main opposition parties boycotted the polls, and the judiciary subsequently annulled the elections, finding that the conduct of the April election had violated the constitution. New elections were scheduled for late October 2006 well beyond the 90-day party-switching window. For first time since 2001, politicians would have the opportunity to switch parties without the risk of becoming ineligible to run for reelection.

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