What I know about Thai politics boils down to colorful campaign posters, Red and Yellow shirts, and some taxi driver knowledge that as a professional journalist I’ve learned I should stay away from. But when the taxi driver in question speaks good English (a rarity in the un-colonized Thailand), is from the middle class, highly educated, and can play covers by the rock band the Scorpions on his guitar, I think I might be safe.
Kriengsak Sathienwatana, or Toy as he prefers, in part because he knows his name is unpronounceable by farangs (foreigners), says Sunday's parliamentary election was a huge success. It restored democracy to Thailand, he says, something that was lost in a military coup back in 2006. Yes, like most taxi drivers, Toy is a Red Shirt, a supporter of exiled leader Thaksin Shinawatra, a business mogul who ruled Thailand with a populist fist from 2000-2005. Thaksin’s long arms reached all the way from his Dubai condo to orchestrate his youngest sister, Yingluck, becoming Thailand’s first female Prime Minister.
Yinluck Shinawatra’s party, Pheu Thai, supported by the Red Shirts, captured a clear majority in the Parliament, with approximately 260 of the 500 seats (although a recount is in order because of contested ballots). The losers, the ruling Democrat Party, sent its yellow shirt enthusiasts (a color associated with the monarchy) home with 160 seats in parliament.
The margin of victory is key because a close election might have signaled an instant return to political violence that has reared its head repeatedly over the last five years. More than a year ago angry red shirts occupied downtown Bangkok for months, demanding changes from the ruling Democrat Party, backed by a military and the monarchy many perceive (for good reason—18 coups in the last century and a Queen that has actively sided with the yellow shirts) as meddling. The real story is that close to 75 percent of eligible Thai voters came out for the elections. A couple of Thai political experts told me that over the last decade the majority of Thai have become politically literate. They may not actually be literate, but they have begun to pay attention to political parties and their policies, and they care—they feel involved. Participation is a good sign for any democracy, but it doesn’t mean people are making educated choices. Many no doubt voted based on the crazy litany of offerings from different political parties, made available on free laptops—a 40 percent increase in minimum wage, housing, car subsidies.
There is a relative calm, for now, that has proceeded the elections. So far Pheu Thai leaders have said all the right things—that they want political and societal unity, that they want cooperation (they even went so far as to form an immediate coalition government with four other smaller political parties in order to solidify their parliamentary advantage), and that they won’t push for reconciliation for political pariahs, namely the Thai elephant in the room, ex-prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
But reporter Andrew Macgregor Marshall writes in Foreign Policy magazine that all is not well, that “Thailand is slipping backwards into authoritarianism, militarism, and repression.” Marshall lays out a future in which the ailing king, his feuding heirs, military power struggles, and Thaksin’s own desire to return will undermine a real democratic process in Thailand. And I take his words seriously as he literally resigned from Reuters, after 17 years, in order to write this article. Reporting honestly about the Thai monarchy will no doubt prevent him from setting foot in that country for the foreseeable future. Thailand maintains a strict policy, one that often means imprisonment, against those who engage in disparaging remarks, perceived or real, against the Thai royal family. He writes “Thailand's tragedy is that throughout its modern history, generals and courtiers have sabotaged Thai democracy while claiming to be acting in the name of the palace.”
Trusted driver Toy and I sit stuck in Bangkok’s notorious traffic, laughing at the concrete monolith just off the left side of the highway. It’s the seemingly forgotten frame of a skytrain line that was supposed to stretch to the airport, but didn’t get fully funded because of government corruption. Toy laughs that one day archaeologists will uncover the unfinished public transit disaster and know that modern Thai society was a failure. Despite his excitement that his party won the election, he’s worried about the future too. He knows corruption is still likely, and that political infighting often undoes progress. Like many Thai, he revered the monarchy, and could not be more depressed about its chaotic state. Toy acknowledges if the Pheu Thai leaders make the mistake of letting Thaksin come home to roost too soon, in the next six months a return to street battles between the red and yellow shirts will be inevitable.
But for now, an important part of his concept of democracy has been restored. Food prices will go down he says, from an inflation he blames on the now ousted Democrats. And that will enable him to buy the 42-inch LCD wide screen television he has his eye on. “It will be good for my karaoke nights,” he says. Sounds like modern democracy, warts and all, to me.