Thai vote: democratic backslide?

A strong economy is expected to hand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra a solid majority Sunday.

Wanlop Chunete, a dairy farmer in the arid hills of northeastern Thailand, is better off today than he was four years ago. He still owes the bank money, but his monthly repayments are lower and he's bought more cows with his profits from milk sales. When he goes to the local hospital, he pays only 75 cents a visit.

Come Sunday, when Thailand elects a new parliament, Wanlop will be returning the favor.

"I will be voting for the governing party," he says "Compared to the other parties, Thai Rak Thai delivers on its campaign promises. Other parties come here and pay respect, but nothing changes."

Sentiments like these are expected to hand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra an unassailable majority in parliament. During his four-year tenure, Thailand's GDP has grown 22 percent, second fastest in East Asia after China. Many Thais credit Mr. Thaksin's more authoritarian approach, seeing him as a man who has brought stability and can get things done, whether it's fixing the economy or mobilizing government aid to tsunami victims.

But the prospect of another landslide for Thaksin, in an election seen less as a contest of issues than as a referendum on him, has raised concerns that Thai democracy could be the ultimate loser. Analysts say the space for dissent has narrowed sharply under his rule, while judicial and constitutional checks on his power have been undermined.

"There's a general feeling that this administration does not fully appreciate the concept of human rights or what democracy means," says James Klein, country representative of the Asia Foundation. "Thaksin has basically said democracy is not the goal, economic well-being for everyone is the goal, and when democracy gets in the way of that, shove it aside."

Another Singapore?

Critics charge that Thaksin is moving Thailand into line with authoritarian Asian democracies like Malaysia and Singapore, where single-party rule is the norm. They say his mix of economic populism and repressive crackdowns is reversing decades of hard-fought political freedoms. A spate of extrajudicial killings of alleged drug dealers in 2003, and the death of 85 Muslims in army custody last October have drawn international rebuke.

"Thailand used to be a model for the region that showed economic rights and political rights can go hand in hand, that we could be an open society and a prosperous society at the same time," says Sunai Pasuk, a veteran campaigner and consultant to Human Rights Watch.

Thaksin has denied any pullback on safeguarding human rights and insisted that other drug dealers were behind most of the 2003 killings. He has offered a partial apology for the deaths of the Muslims, who suffocated after being stacked into army trucks, and promised to investigate security officials involved.

Plaudits for tsunami handling

Thaksin won praise for his handling of the tsunami aftermath and his ability to coordinate state agencies involved in the rescue operation. Critics say his image as a strong leader during the crisis was burnished by broadcast media that are the dominant source of news in Thailand. Five of Thailand's six TV channels are owned by the government or the army; the sixth is part of Thaksin's family-owned company.

Officials in Thai Rak Thai, the party founded by Thaksin in 1998, say that when it comes to the election, they are playing by the rules and giving voters what they want, including subsidized healthcare and easier bank credit.

"The benefits of single-party government is that they can make effective decisions." says Suranand Vejajjiva, a lawmaker and party spokesman. "In the last two decades people were crying out for strong leadership, for a strong prime minister."

Indeed, it's a measure of Thailand's chronic political instability that Thaksin evokes fears of single-party dominance after only four years in power. He's the first freely elected leader to have completed a full term in office; others fell to coups, coalition breakups and no-confidence votes. Since 1932, when Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, it has weathered 17 military coups and 23 prime ministers.

Since 1997, a new constitution has crimped smaller parties and made it harder for lawmakers to switch sides. One beneficiary has been Thaksin, a former police colonel turned telecom billionaire, who turned his 2001 electoral win into an effective lock on parliament.

This time around, Thaksin's party is aiming for 400 of the 500 seats. Recent polls by The Nation newspaper suggest that Thai Rak Thai probably will win around 240 of the 400 constituent seats, and a majority of the remaining 100 seats.

Unable to match Thaksin's popularity or his electoral machine, the opposition is playing its own numbers game. The Democrat Party is stumping for 201 seats - the minimum required to censure the prime minister for abuses of power.

The opposition is expected to do best in the restless south and in large urban areas. They are campaigning on promises to cut university fees, add pensions for sectors of the informal economy, and improve agricultural productivity.

Aim: 'an effective opposition'

But the opposition is also making an issue of Thaksin's authoritarian style. Campaigners say that even those voters who admire Thaksin's record in office are wary of his unchecked grip on power.

"For the health of the country's democratic system over the long term it's better for there to be an effective opposition party in parliament," says Korn Chatikavanij, a prominent banker who quit to run for parliament as an opposition candidate.

That argument doesn't carry much water in Pak Chong, a district of dairy farms, cornfields, and small vineyards. Most voters here say their lives are getting better under Thai Rak Thai, with more work and benefits to share out. "It's easier to get a job now because the government has so many programs for the villages," says Raowe Harnnork, a recent high school graduate.

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