Thailand's New P.M. Must Reach Out to Rural Voters

Worrawit Saepu resents being characterized as a money-grubbing illiterate too stupid to vote. The 23-year-old grew up in a village in northern Thailand and still passionately supports Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist prime minister ousted two years ago in a bloodless military coup. Worrawit and millions of other grassroots folk twice elected Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party in landslides. But critics insist their votes were bought and that they are not clever enough to choose their own representatives.

For many Thais in the countryside, Thaksin was the first prime minister to ever pay them any attention. Worrawit remembers when his village of Mae Saluk was overwhelmed by poverty and drug use. That changed when Thaksin became P.M. in 2001 and launched policies that included a "drug war" and programs to help the rural poor, including scholarships that helped send Worrawit to Chiang Mai University, where he now studies economics. "There was never any support for rural people until Thaksin," Worrawit says. "We may be stupid, but we do know what we got from Thaksin and why we appreciate him. Thaksin is a person who gave life to us. I regard him as a hero."

The 2006 coup that consigned Thaksin to exile threw Thailand into tumult that has seen four more prime ministers come and go. A fifth, Abhisit Vejjajiva, took office in mid-December. But his coalition government takes power with a thin majority cobbled together with the controversial support of a dissident faction of the People Power Party, successor to Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai. Abhisit's Democrat Party boasts deep support in Bangkok and the south, but winning over poor and rural citizens in the country's north and northeast will determine if he becomes a footnote in Thai history or something more lasting.

Success is hardly assured. The rural working classes are still seething over how they've been characterized as craven, malleable dunces by the People's Alliance for Democracy and their leaders are threatening to rise up if the new government attempts to act on a PAD proposal to disenfranchise them and establish a limited democracy. Yellow-shirt-wearing PAD members are demanding a "new politics" that would see some members of Parliament appointed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. A rival group, United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), whose members wear red shirts, warns of nationwide protests against Abhisit.

For Thaksin detractors, the fugitive telecom billionaire is guilty of everything from corruption to abuse of power to trying to usurp the king's prerogatives. Rooted in Bangkok and the south, they insist that the masses that support the tycoon are guided only by basic—if not base—instincts. But conversations with people in Thailand's north and northeast suggest it is oversimplification to say Thaksin fans are swayed by handouts, that his economic policies amounted to vote-buying or even that he, his associates and his devotees are antimonarchy. Thaksin opponents seem most infuriated by his enduring appeal. Since the military deposed him in September 2006, he has been unable to return home for fear of imprisonment, but numerous Thais still devotedly follow his movements and pronouncements. His persistent popularity hinges on fond recall of his tenure in office but also, paradoxically, on his opponents' efforts to demonize him. Allegations that he was corrupt (and his conviction on such charges) are widely seen as false—trumped up by his enemies. It does not help that some attacks on him border on the hysterical. His name still moves the masses: Word that he will appear via videotape or live phone-in attracts tens of thousands to stadiums.

Thaksin's huge 2001 victory resulted largely from his decision to focus on the desires and disaffection of rural Thais. His administration offered affordable loans to village people wanting to establish small businesses; canceled debts of farmers struggling to eke out a subsistence from the infertile soil in the vast Isaan region; made elementary and secondary education accessible to more ordinary people and introduced the hugely popular "30-baht scheme" that provided universal access to health care, with each citizen paying 30 Thai baht —less than $1—for a hospital visit or admission. Such programs changed the lives of thousands mired in the margins of agriculture, still the biggest economic sector, with some 49 percent of Thais engaged in farming and related work. "People used to have to sell their land just to get treated at a hospital," says Kwanchai Pripana, radio-station owner and a fiery leader of the UDD in Udon Thani, Isaan's biggest city.

Aorapin Timan runs a large crafts and souvenir shop in Bosang Bazaar in San Kampaeng, outside Chiang Mai. She parlayed the business from the days when her mother took a loan provided through the Thaksin government and set up a mobile stand selling dry goods, fruit, meat, instant noodles and such. "During Chuan's government, I did not have even 10,000 baht (about $300) in my pocket," she says, referring to former prime minister Chuan Leekpai of the Democrat Party. "Thaksin set up projects that helped poor people. That's a fact. It was not just about handing out a few baht."

As heir to Chuan, Abhisit Vejjajiva inherits the antipathy many in the north and northeast feel toward the Democrats. Educated in Britain, Abhisit is 44, ostensibly new blood in Thailand's turgid politics. But he is also the scion of the country's oldest political party, a center-right, pro-business, pro-military, royalist organization most popular in Bangkok and the south. For many Thais, he represents the old vested interests that ran Thailand for decades and that appear eager to roll back the populist gains of the Thaksin era and return the country to the urban oligarchies that dominated politics and business for decades.

Dismissed by some as a stiff Cambridge Brahmin, Abhisit is telegenic, bright and urbane—qualities that should appeal to a citizenry weary of the country's cacophonous politics, usual-suspect list of aging politicians and ambitious military commanders quick to launch coups and suspend constitutions. But he displays little of the common touch or instincts of Thaksin, who despite being fantastically rich somehow persuaded the masses that he felt their pain. Where Thaksin was able to deftly co-opt rival politicians, Abhisit's deal with former aide Newin Chidchob to form a new government has drawn cries of treachery and opportunism. It did not help when Newin was widely quoted suggesting to Abhisit that he could make the northeast forget Thaksin by "dishing" billions of Thai baht into the region. The comment appeared to perpetuate the idea that rural people can be bought as well as emphasize the challenge the fledgling P.M. faces in the north and northeast.

In Chiang Mai, some business people also find the handout charges offensive. "If someone says money can buy people's support, OK, Charoen Sirivadhanabhakdi is one of the richest men in the world," says Pechawat Wattanapongsirigul, referring to the liquor magnate who brews the country's popular Chang beer. "Let him come as a candidate and pay each person in the north 10,000 baht and you'd see he still could not win." Pechawat owns the Warorot Grand Dame Place hotel in the city's Prasingha district, where red shirts recently gathered to hear speakers excoriate the PAD and the Democrats. "People up here are humans, not dogs," he says.

Because they revere the king, northerners revile the PAD's attack tactics and its branding of them as antimonarchy. This is a country where almost no Thai will countenance a slight against the monarch, let alone commit one. "I love the king!" declared all those NEWSWEEK interviewed, from farmers to street merchants to political firebrands. Even people who wonder why the palace did not intervene to stop the PAD from occupying Bangkok's two biggest airports voice no criticism of any royal. And outrage bubbles up about the PAD's tactic of wearing yellow—the king's color.

Thaksin supporters see the appropriation of the monarch's standard as a crass political ploy. "The PAD is trying to keep Thai people divided," says Aorapin Timan, the souvenir merchant. "Now it is red against yellow." Abhisit, whose party some already regard as colluding with the PAD, will need to reach out quickly to disaffected Thais in the north and northeast. He currently has an opening, as some red-shirt leaders have adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Rural constituents complain that administrations since Thaksin's have pretty much abandoned the programs he instituted. Reintroducing elements of Thaksinomics could be a shrewd way to attract support. It does not appear, meanwhile, that Abhisit will seek to amend the constitution to disenfranchise the rural poor—a move that almost certainly would stoke unrest around the country.

The new prime minister must preside over a country as divided as the United States was after the 2000 presidential election. He begins on a less-than-secure note as a man who benefited from a deck seemingly stacked against Thaksin's allies; as a man who may have been sympathetic to a group, the PAD, bent on limiting the country's democracy; and as a man who is looked upon favorably by the military. Thailand now sits on a number of fault lines—a once vibrant economy buffeted by the global economic meltdown and internal disarray, a stability long buttressed by a revered monarch that's now in question as he ages, the urban middle and upper classes arrayed against the rural poor, Bangkok and the south aligned against the north and northeast, red shirts facing off with yellow shirts, people determined to take out Thaksin versus others bent on restoring him to a legitimate and important role in Thai politics.

For now the red shirts and yellow shirts are hunkered down, watching developments but planning their strategies. Kwanchai Pripana, the UDD leader in Udon Thani, says he is following the actions of the prime minister. "We will not move on Bangkok, because if we do something right now other people watching will judge the red shirts as stupid and aggressive," he tells NEWSWEEK. The country watches, meanwhile, to see if the PAD will suffer any repercussions for occupying Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang airports as well as Government House, and causing the nation's economy to shed almost $150 billion.

Chaturon Chaisang, a former leader of Thai Rak Thai, says the PAD's goal for Thailand is "a tiny group of 'good' people self-selected to run the country." The UDD says it will not stand by and see such a system installed. The question now for the country's latest government is how it will prevent Thailand from descending into the kind of chaos that would make recent demonstrations seem like mild, Gandhian sit-ins.