Thaksin looms large in Thailand's first postcoup vote

Politicians echo the exiled leader's populist promises ahead of elections next week.

Free education. New roads. Subsidized rice. Tax cuts and cheap gas.

On Thailand's campaign trail, the future looks bright as politicians stump for votes before the Dec. 23 parliamentary elections, the first to be held under a new Constitution after last year's military takeover. But parsing the sunny pledges of the political parties is testing the patience of voters.

Those similarities aren't lost on voters such as Chaliew Chaiwan, an electrician in this northern stronghold of the former ruling Thai Rak Thai party and its exiled leader, Thaksin Shinawatra.

"All these promises look the same," says Mr. Chaliew as he flips through a stack of leaflets at his house. "Many parties have seen that Thai Rak Thai policies are popular, so they're copying them."

As Thailand prepares for a democratic transition after 15 months of military rule, the brand of top-down economic populism introduced by the ousted former prime minister is everywhere. All the major parties in the running, including spinoffs from the dissolved Thai Rak Thai party, have gilded their platforms with vote-getting promises that range from the optimistic to the unthinkable, say analysts. With polls pointing to a coalition government, making them stick will be difficult.

At the same time, the potent legacy of Mr. Thaksin, who is living in exile in Britain, hangs over the elections. Barred from returning to Thailand where he faces criminal charges over a land deal, Thaksin is nevertheless a fixture on the campaign trail as friends and foes alike invoke his name, either to claim his mantle or belittle his record. In many rural areas, his popularity is so strong that some opponents avoid frontal attacks in order to win over potential swing voters.

The party most closely linked to Thaksin is the People's Power Party (PPP), which styles itself as Thai Rak Thai 2.0. Its candidates say that a vote for PPP is a vote for the return of Thaksin and the economic growth of his rule, as well as a democratic retort to the generals who ousted him.

Chinnicha Wongsawat, a PPP candidate in Chiang Mai, says voters should elect her pro-Thaksin party over the others, because it has a track record of delivering on pledges such as subsidized healthcare and rural microcredit.

"If you want to buy authentic jeans, why would you buy a fake pair?" she asks. Ms. Chinnicha's allegiance is deep rooted: Thaksin is her uncle on her mother's side. Her first-time candidacy, at the age of 26, is the result of a controversial court ruling in May that disbanded Thai Rak Thai for electoral fraud and barred 111 party executives, including Chinnicha's mother, a former lawmaker, from politics for five years.

Overnight, the pool of qualified politicians in Thailand shrunk to a puddle, cueing up a trickle of newcomers, such as Chinnicha, and a surge of semiretired political dinosaurs to contest the elections. The result is an election run under a new Constitution that is awash in old faces, including Samak Sundaravej, leader of the front-runner PPP and a veteran power broker.

That makes the current spate of populism even more brittle, say commentators. "The sorry and dirty fact of this election campaign is that party leaders, candidates and literature are making promises they know will not be kept," wrote the Bangkok Post in a recent editorial.

Abhisit Vejjajiva, who as leader of the anti-Thaksin Democrat Party is tipped as a potential prime minister, has promised to implement four key pledges within 99 days of taking office. They include free schooling up to Grade 12 and lower prices for gas and cooking fuel. He argues that, despite a slowing economy, his agenda is budgeted for and geared toward long-term economic development, not short-term fixes.

While the national campaign is dominated by grand pledges, some races in Thailand still turn on local factors.

In Phrae, a tobacco-growing province with a lawless reputation, the once-dominant Democrat Party is losing out to the rival PPP camp. Many observers credit a sympathy vote for PPP after the Oct. 22 murder of Charnchai Silapauaychai, a popular provincial chief and former Democrat who had recently switched sides. He was gunned down during a predawn jog around a sports stadium where a wooden shrine to him now stands.

Five men were quickly arrested and accused of the crime; one of them was the cousin of a powerful, thrice-elected Democrat member of parliament. Both he and his lawmaker cousin have denied any involvement, but police suspect a political motive.

But even in Phrae talk among PPP supporters is how Thaksin loyalists will return Thailand's rapid growth. "People in the countryside know who can deliver the goods," says Anuwart Wongwan, a former pro-Thaksin lawmaker.

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