Ousting elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra may have been easy for Thailand's military rulers, but erasing his legacy will prove much more difficult.
The resignation of Mr. Thaksin and more than 100 lawmakers in his ruling Thai Rak Thai party this week effectively spells the end of the populist party that dominated Thai politics for the past five years. But while the political landscape will be different for next year's promised elections, the issue of how to win the hearts of the rural poor – whose profile and clout were raised by Thaksin – will continue to influence Thai politics long after this latest coup.
"The Thai Rak Thai government was corrupt and committed gross human rights abuses, but it also was the first to take the poor seriously," says Giles Ungpakorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "You can't put the genie back into the bottle now. The 16 million people out there [who voted for Thai Rak Thai in the voided April 2 election] will be waiting to see how the other parties plan to improve their lives."
The political stalemate that gripped this mostly Buddhist nation of 65 million people for eight months before the Sept. 19 coup was characterized by a struggle between Bangkok's middle class, who saw Thaksin as greedy and corrupt, and the rural poor, who saw him as someone who cared about their needs.
How the junta leaders and newly appointed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont deal with the rural poor over the months and years to come may reshape Thailand's political landscape. The collective vigor that gripped the anti-Thaksin movement was focused solely on removing him from office. Now that he is finally gone, those who ousted him – or cheered on the junta – face a temptation to reverse everything Thaksin's government stood for without articulating a competing vision for the country.
"Some people want everything we did tossed out," says a former member of Thai Rak Thai's economic team, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But not everything Thaksin's government did was bad. For a Buddhist nation, we sure like to go to extremes."
In some ways, Thai Rak Thai was what reformers wanted when they drafted the 1997 Constitution, which the junta unceremoniously discarded. Thai governments had become synonymous with instability in the previous decades, lasting about 18 months on average due to incessant party-hopping among lawmakers and the military's taste for coups.
The 1997 Constitution put in place a strong executive and rules that forbade members of parliament from switching parties on a whim. So when Thaksin formed Thai Rak Thai the following year and rose to power in 2001, conditions were ripe for the rise of a strong premier.
Four years later, Thai Rak Thai stunned its opponents by capturing more than 60 percent of the popular vote, the largest election victory ever in Thai history. But the party proved a victim of its own success. The election galvanized Thaksin's opponents in academia and Bangkok's royalist elite, who claimed the billionaire politician had co-opted the checks and balances enshrined in the Constitution and become morally unfit to lead the country.
Even though the independent bodies showed signs of vitality after months of public protests and a new election was only weeks away, royalist military factions staged the September coup with the support of those close to revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who is worshiped here after six decades on the throne.
Now with both Thaksin and the Constitution gone, the days of a strong executive appear to be over. Drafters of the next Constitution, to be picked by the junta, will likely do away with rules making it difficult to switch parties, allowing a rogue group of lawmakers to take down any government as in the 1990s.
"If we have to choose between a strong prime minister and one that society can control, the latter is better," says Prinya Thewanaruemitkul, a law professor at Thammasat University.
Even so, the interests of the Thai public are not monolithic. The coup leaders must now walk a tightrope denouncing Thaksin's populist policies while still pacifying the rural poor who saw him as their champion.
The interim government has retained several core Thai Rak Thai policy planks – cheap healthcare and a village loan scheme – while saying the government will practice principles of "sufficiency economy" – an abstract theory touted by the king that calls for moderation, debt avoidance, and dependence on local products. Many business leaders, both Thai and foreign, are perplexed about how this vague theory will be applied in practice, but nobody dares to publicly question an idea ascribed to the king.
One thing seems clear, however. The voice of poor folk in the countryside has grown louder under Thaksin, and politicians in Bangkok will need to take notice.
"After Thai Rak Thai, any political party that takes over in the future will need to pay more attention to rural areas," says Somchai Jitsuchon, research director of the Thailand Development Research Institute, an independent think tank. "If they do not, we will face a crisis again and again."