Dozens have died since Thailand's security forces started their crackdown last week against antigovernment protesters, known as the red shirts, who have taken over the streets of Bangkok to denounce their disenfranchisement since the exile of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, deposed in a 2006 military coup. Images from Bangkok show a burgeoning war zone: lines of soldiers firing on packed crowds, unarmed men dead in the streets, burning vehicles, and barricades. And there's no sign of regret from the nation's rich elite, who engineered Thaksin's ouster. To them, and to much of the world outside Thailand, he was a populist demagogue. He manipulated the ignorant rural majority for political power, the thinking goes, and he might have been the next Hugo Chávez.
But for all his failings—and there are many—Thaksin represents the high-water mark of Thailand’s crumbling democracy. He was undoubtedly cynical and probably corrupt, but his party, Thai Rak Thai, was the first to approach a majority of parliamentary seats—248 out of 500. The closest runner-up in that election took 96. Thaksin won this mandate by mobilizing uninitiated voters in the countryside, rendering a record 70 percent turnout. When the former policeman turned telecom mogul entered politics, he promised to move the base of power from its traditional center—among the rich in Bangkok—to the rural poor, who make up 80 percent of the nation. And he did.
For much of the last 30 years Thailand has vacillated between the rule of juntas and strongmen. Eventually, the 1997 Asian financial crisis brought to power a prime minister, Chuan Leekpai, who pushed for good-government reforms. But his belt-tightening policies ignored the needs of rural Thais suffering from the downturn.
So when Thaksin promised to address their needs in 2001, they elected Thailand’s first truly representative government. Thaksin pumped billions into rural development—including a $2.3 billion Village Fund that gave $25,000 to each of Thailand’s 80,000 villages for microloans and grants to start small businesses and help farmers expand production. The American-trained executive mixed a free-market approach—helping to create small rural enterprise—with the populist policies of debt moratoriums and direct subsidies for farmers. These policies helped the overall GDP per capita of the country jump by 70 percent between 2001 and 2006; income in the countryside rose even faster.
In 2001 Thaksin introduced a universal health program, allowing the poor to receive medical treatment for 75 cents. Political opponents accused him of buying votes, but the number of people below the poverty line dropped from 12.7 million in 2000 (a year before his term) to 7.1 million four years later. His reasons may have been as cynical as any politician’s: to get and keep power. Yet he did so through polling and policymaking, not vote-rigging. In a working democracy, self-interest and good governance should go hand in hand, letting responsive leaders stay in power.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just service to the poor that made Thaksin important for Thailand’s democracy. It was his ability to govern: Thaksin was the first prime minister to lead a government through a full four-year term since the country ended military rule in 1976—every other leader was either overthrown by coup, forced to resign, or abandoned by coalition partners, forcing a new election.
In a nation traditionally driven by soft-spoken palace intrigues and military cliques, the elites didn’t like Thaksin’s undiplomatic rhetoric (he once announced, “The U.N. is not my father”) and corporate style of governance: he created “CEO-governors” empowered to make provincial decisions without checking with Bangkok. It was labeled just another form of cronyism. But by setting numerical targets and giving local officials the power to find solutions, Thaksin was able to pull the country out of the financial crisis, paying back a loan from the International Monetary Fund two years early.
Admittedly, Thaksin was no saint, and much of what his opponents said was true. His drug war in 2003 (in which he rashly vowed to eradicate drug trafficking within three months) killed thousands; his military’s assault is blamed for worsening an Islamic insurgency in the south; and critics say that subsidized loans to farmers were just payoffs for support, which he knew would never be paid back. (Plenty of nations, though, give agricultural subsidies.)
But whatever Thaksin’s flaws, from 2001 until 2006 he incorporated full participation of the masses and offered the country its best shot ever at a functioning democracy. Ordinary people thought he cared about them, even if he alienated the elites. Every nation has opposing classes and factions, and by putting rural voters into play he was creating a check on the power of urban elites. Thaksin’s government was democratic not in spite of his divisiveness but because of it.
Schectman is a freelance reporter based in New York and a former United Nations consultant.