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05BANGKOK1278 THAKSIN\’S VICTORY — CREDIT THE MAN, INNOVATIVE POLICIES, AND THE THAI RAK THAI POLITICAL MACHINE

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“27317”,”2/18/2005 13:23″,”05BANGKOK1278″,”Embassy Bangkok”,

 

“UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY”,””,

 

“This record is a partial extract of the original cable.

 

The full text of the original cable is not available.

 

“,”UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 BANGKOK 001278

 

SIPDIS

 

SENSITIVE

 

DEPARTMENT FOR EAP/BCLTV; HQ USPACOM FOR FPA HUSO

 

E.O. 12958: N/A

TAGS: PGOV, PHUM, TH, Elections – Thai, Thai Prime Minister

SUBJECT: THAKSIN\’S VICTORY — CREDIT THE MAN, INNOVATIVE

POLICIES, AND THE THAI RAK THAI POLITICAL MACHINE

 

REF: BANGKOK 1039 AND PREVIOUS

 

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: The landslide victory of Thaksin

Shinawatra\’s Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party in the February 6

parliamentary election victory reconfirmed the Prime

Minister\’s domination of the Thai political landscape.

Thaksin\’s personality, sophisticated media presentation,

focused populist message, and traditional get-out-the-vote

organizing combined to allow TRT to leave the Democratic

Party, its closest rival, in the political dust. The

February 6 election is regarded as generally free and fair.

END SUMMARY.

 

THAILAND\’S GREAT COMMUNICATOR

 

2. (SBU) As the February 25 date for announcement of the

official election results approaches, it is clear that Thai

Rak Thai (TRT) candidates won over 375 (of 500 seats) in the

Lower House of Parliament. This huge majority will allow PM

Thaksin to form an unprecedented single-party Thai

government. The key to TRT\’s overwhelming win was the

enormous personal prestige of PM Thaksin with the Thai

electorate, an appeal he bolstered by delivering on promised

populist programs and slick political marketing tactics

throughout his first term. While the Thaksin image is

underpinned by Thailand\’s spurt in economic growth and full

recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it has also

been skillfully built up.

 

3. (SBU) In the Thai context, Thaksin\’s confident

personality lent itself to image magnification. As a largely

self-made billionaire, he has benefited from Buddhist

beliefs, still strong in the rural electorate, that success

in this life reflects having lived a good life in the

previous incarnation. The decisive \”CEO\” image that he

cultivated may annoy members of the Thai elite and

sophisticated urbanites, but it appeals to other voters who

believe Thailand needs a tough leader to address social

problems and walk proudly on the international stage. His

combative statements, harsh strategies of wars on drugs,

corruption and, over the last year, on Muslim separatists in

the South attracted many Thais even as they appalled

international observers.

 

POPULIST IMAGES AND POLICIES, AND STAYING ON MESSAGE

 

4. (SBU) Examples abound too of how PM Thaksin, working

closely with media savvy TRT aides, transformed many of his

day-to-day duties of his office into opportunities to

highlight his decisive leadership and populist policies. PM

Thaksin regularly holds \”mobile\” cabinet meetings — at least

one a month — in different provinces outside of Bangkok.

These traveling roadshows always projected the Prime Minister

sleeping on a mat at a local Buddhist temple, or walking with

farmers in the fields promising them debt relief, or fixing

some thorny local dispute with the Governor or local

officials. These populist images helped keep Thaksin\’s

personal approval rates consistently above 60 percent. They

are reinforced by Thaksin\’s use of weekly radio talks

(suspended during the official election campaign) to explain

his actions to \”the people.\”

 

5. (SBU) In November 2004, a few months before the

elections, Thaksin and TRT — mobilizing every Royal Thai

Government (RTG) agency to sponsor a booth — staged a

week-long government fair at an exhibition mall in Bangkok.

This fair highlighted Thaksin\’s policies: the popular

30-baht health scheme, the revolving village fund, low income

housing, educational scholarships abroad, the

One-Tambon-One-Product (OTOP) program, and others. It was a

reminder that he has continued to implement the populist

programs he promised before the 2001 election, which critics

had predicted would be impossible to sustain. The central

theme of this fair was an ingenious portrayal of the PM as

the &CEO8 of Thailand, a leader doing all he could to help

the nation through \”grassroots\” efforts to become prosperous

and more developed.

 

6. (SBU) Thaksin, who has no equal in Thailand on how to

attract political attention, even used the media to great

effect when, just before the election, an accident in

Bangkok\’s newly opened subway system forced a two-week

closure. At the grand re-opening designed to restore

confidence in riders, the PM showed up with young TRT

candidates and several well-dressed TV personalities in tow.

In contrast, Apirak Kosayodhin, the Democrat Party (DP)

Governor of Bangkok, just elected in August of last year,

failed to make an appearance. Thaksin also dominated media

coverage after the December 26 tsunami, immediately visiting

the devastated provinces, mixing in with the survivors, and

promising that the RTG would tide over victims with immediate

relief and foot all the big infrastructure repair costs.

After the election, Bangkok Governor Apirak commented to the

Ambassador on the PM,s ability to \”turn crisis into

opportunity8 as one major factor in TRT\’s strong showing.

 

TRT STRENGTHS: DISCIPLINE, COMBINING \”MODERN\” AND

TRADITIONAL POLITICS

 

7. (SBU) Aside from the personal draw of Thaksin and the

popularity of his populist policies with poor urban and rural

voters, the TRT party showed itself to be better organized

and innovative than the opposition parties. As illustrated,

TRT insiders proved throughout Thaksin\’s first term their

mastery of modern marketing techniques to boost the Prime

Minister\’s image and sell his programs. TRT demonstrated it

could appeal over the heads of local power brokers directly

to voters, but at its core it remains a party combining

factions of tough \”traditional\” politicians, whose political

styles remain common. In January, Deputy Agriculture

Minister Newin Chidchob, a key and controversial veteran TRT

party operative, was reportedly caught red-handed offering to

buy votes at a vote canvassers\’ meeting in southern Thailand.

The scandal began to grow but, in a matter of days, Newin

was relocated from his assignment to &reign in the South8

from DP control to his Northeast stronghold. The controversy

over Newin\’s actions raged in the media for a few days, but

he was unavailable for the opposition to exploit it

politically. While Newin\’s problems may have influenced the

outcome that the TRT lost across the South (and even the MP

constituency seats it had held in the far southern

provinces), the party was able to deflect a nasty campaign

image that might have tarred candidates in other regions.

Accusations against Newin are pending in the EC.

 

WAS THE ELECTION FREE AND FAIR?

 

8. (U) The Election Commission (EC) has estimated nationwide

voter turnout on February 6, 2005 at just under 73 percent,

or nearly 3 percent more than the last general election in

2001. While the independent EC ran the nuts and bolts of the

polling process, the sitting RTG had the budget and control

of state agencies to give itself advantages. Many complaints

about individual races have been lodged. However, by most

accounts, the RTG did not unduly press its \”state influence\”

advantages, and the running of this election was remarkably

smooth and fair, even though all parties engaged in vote

buying and other traditional political tactics to some

degree. Even in tsunami-affected areas, the vote went on

with few problems. Most importantly, security officials were

able to maintain a nearly incident-free election day in the

nation\’s troubled far southern region.

 

9. (U) The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a

Bangkok-based network of Asian election observation and human

rights organizations, described the election in these terms:

\”The process was generally free and fair, and the results, by

and large, represented the will of the people.8 ANFREL,

which dispatched over 40 international election observers

nationwide, took note of the prevalence of vote buying and

claim of misuse of RTG funds to sway voters, such as use of

tsunami relief efforts in Phangnga province. However, ANFREL

 

SIPDIS

was also impressed that by the 3 pm polls closing on election

day, an organized, carefully watched vote count had been

conducted, and some 34 million Thais had voted. ANFREL did

not fundamentally dispute the process that allowed TRT and

Thaksin to roll up an unprecedented landslide victory.

 

THE DEMOCRATIC PARTY: CAPABLE OF RENEWAL?

 

10. (SBU) Comment: Thaksin demonstrated his strong personal

appeal, and he and TRT received credit from most voters for

Thailand\’s vigorous economic growth and increased regional

stature. Even in the fourteen provinces of the South, where

TRT lost all individual constituency contests, it received

more than three times the number of \”party list\” votes than

in 2001. Nothing in the Thai Constitution prevents Thaksin

from running for a third (or more) four-year term and the

future looks bleak to the opposition. Thaksin critics are

grumbling fiercely and many make dire predictions about the

dangers of weakened checks and balances. Uniformly, however,

they agree that the overall election results reflected the

electorate\’s choice.

 

11. (SBU) The DP and other opposition parties were soundly

beaten in this election. On the national level, the DP was

unable to pose a strong alternative to Thaksin, could only

offer promises that mimicked his popular policies in health

and education reform, and virtually conceded defeat more than

a year before the election. Some newspapers have claimed

that the DP party symbol, a statue of the Goddess of the

Earth, cried tears of sorrow on the night of February 6, and

some superstitious Thais interpret this as a permanent

inability of the DP to compete with TRT. However, in the

aftermath, the fact that the DP won decisively in the South

and will lead the opposition with (probably) 96 MPs is

beginning to sink in. Abhisit Vejjajiva is likely to replace

the stolid Banyat Bantadhan as DP leader, and he has already

tried to publicly discuss alternatives to Thaksin\’s

provocative security approach to the South, where increasing

separatist violence may prove to be the Administration\’s

Achilles Heel. There are signs that other DP leaders are

serious about restructuring the DP to be more pro-active in

criticizing the incoming TRT administration, and to better

adjust to the new style of politics that Thaksin has

introduced. They talk openly of the need to steal some pages

from the TRT electioneering playbook to ensure that the party

regains a truly national constituency. End Comment.

BOYCE

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Written by thaicables

June 24, 2011 at 1:47 pm

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