To his supporters, telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra has a Midas touch. In a nation of 60 million, still struggling from the aftereffects of an economic crash that spread throughout Asia in 1997, being a billionaire has helped the candidate for prime minister win over a powerful, mainly urban middle class that admires his business acumen.
Wearing a youthful, grinning air and neatly cut dark suits, Mr. Thaksin promises to breathe fresh life into a democracy that has grown tired of the corruption, violence, and vote-buying that have long been the currency of politics here. He has kept a lead in the polls ahead of elections, which must be held by January, even as he is being investigated for allegedly transferring shares to domestic servants to avoid reporting assets.
And as Thaksin's star rises against the backdrop of a political reform movement, his candidacy is also raising important questions over the functioning of the democracy.
Echoing the expensive media campaigns that help carry US politicians into office, a flood of catchy slogans, slick video presentations, and well-orchestrated PR has inserted Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party into the national psyche.
"These days, you don't want a lawyer or an Army man for the job of prime minister," says TRT party spokesman Suranand Vejjajiva. He refers to current Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, a lawyer by training, and to the military generals who have seized power 17 times over the past six decades.
In the two years since he founded it, Thaksin's TRT (Thais Love Thais) party has grown into a formidable force, absorbing voters and politicians who have been defecting from other parties.
Mr. Suranand points out that Thai Rak Thai sets unusually high standards for its members and candidates, aiming to screen out politicians with corrupt backgrounds. "Our party is different. It's about ideas and policies. The old-style politicians often don't understand this."
TRT is in tune with the mood of reform here, reform that is being driven by a new Constitution, promulgated in October 1997 and only now coming into effect. The country is also being nudged toward reform with new bodies such as the National Counter Corruption Commission and the Election Commission.
But if Thaksin would like to portray himself as a reformist savior, his wealth prompts some to charge that Thaksin has bought himself both a political party and a campaign machine. His personal fortune was built largely from government concessions that gave him a virtual monopoly in mobile and satellite telecommunications.
"We need to set a limit on the amount of money one individual can contribute to a party," warns Vishnu Varanyou, a professor of law at Thamassat University in Bangkok and one of the authors of Thailand's new Constitution. "If we let this continue, it's the politics of money, not democracy.... [Thaksin] will have to work hard to prove that his ambition is truly for the common good."
Among those hardest to convince, and yet easiest to corrupt, are Thailand's poor rural voters, who are often more concerned with the development of local infrastructure than the heady intellectual merits of democratic reform.
Despite offering a three-year debt moratorium for farmers and sending out teams of experts to learn about their problems, Thaksin may have trouble appealing to this rural majority, who often feel alienated from the middle class and are typically the target of old-style vote-buyers.
His promise to install Internet connections in 7,000 rural sub-districts sounds like the reverie of a digital tycoon out of touch with the realities of the agricultural majority. "Promises like this are totally out of context," says Vishnu.
As national elections are due to be called in the next few weeks, Thaksin's greatest asset may well be his opposition. Voters scanning the political horizon find it dotted with familiar faces that have all, to a greater or lesser degree, been tainted by the corruption and greed that is blamed for the country's economic downfall.
Despite unspectacular stints as foreign minister and deputy prime minister in earlier governments, Thaksin remains an inexperienced politician, yet he is being seen as the only new alternative to the "politics as usual" of vote-buying and corruption. Even so, many fear that the tycoon who promises "new thinking and new ways" may in fact be relying more on his marketing skills than on the substance of true reform, offering Thai voters the political equivalent of an old product with new and snappier branding.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society