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Getting out of Thailand’s political cul-de-sac

« Getting out of Thailand’s political cul-de-sac » by Thitinan Pongsudhirak, 06/10/2017, Nikkei Asian Review

For ruling elites, quest for legitimacy could prove a trap of their own making

Thailand has come full circle again. The kingdom’s 12-year pattern of a political juggernaut being elected to office and later abusing power before being ousted by his or her opponents still holds. This time, as determined by the country’s highest court, the outcome is a five-year jail term for former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra on charges of negligence over her government’s flawed rice subsidy scheme that ran from Thailand’s last poll in July 2011 until the latest military coup in May 2014.

While this cycle of a popular mandate being overturned by judicial and military maneuvers repeats itself, the persistent conundrum for Thailand is whether those who rule without electoral legitimacy will perform well enough to stay in power — or whether calling the shots from the sidelines will lead to another (and possibly more damaging) round of internal conflict and turmoil.

First, it is instructive to put the Yingluck trial in perspective. Like her eldest brother and former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was re-elected by a landslide in 2005 only to be toppled by a putsch the following year, Yingluck led the Pheu Thai party to a resounding win in parliamentary elections and became the country’s first female head of government. The Shinawatras’ popularity derived from concrete policies that pandered to poorer rungs of society, particularly rural constituencies. When Thaksin had his turn earlier, his platform featured a universal health care that guaranteed treatment for just 30 baht, or about $1 — and a microcredit scheme that bestowed 1 million baht on each of about 77,000 villages. For Yingluck, Thaksin’s inner sanctum on policy contrivance similarly decided on numbers that are easy to remember. Farmers were guaranteed 15,000 baht per ton of rice, undergraduate degree holders 15,000 baht monthly salary, and wage earners 300 baht a day.

These numbers were designed to woo the electorate, and were not based on rationally calculated policy programs with logical and longer-term policy objectives. But whether and how much the rice-pledging led to billions of dollars in fiscal losses — as claimed in the legal charge leveled against Yingluck — is a different matter. Thaksin’s policy bet through the Yingluck premiership was premised on cornering the world rice market by accumulating Thai rice and paying farmers handsomely right away. If the accumulated rice could be sold on world markets with higher prices, then a handsome profit would accrue. If not, corresponding losses would be incurred. As it turned out, Thailand quickly discovered it was no longer the only major rice exporter. The rice-pledging scheme was a profligate gamble and a policy disaster. Its exact losses can only be valued when all the stored rice is sold with proceeds compared with originally purchased prices.

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