Last week, Sondhi Limthongkul became leader of Thailand’s New Politics Party. Sondhi, a former media mogul, is one of the men behind the ongoing demonstrations that precipitated the military coup overthrowing Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, and which since then have given the military and the judiciary a pretext to bar Thaksin’s proxies from holding office.
Thaksin was elected prime minister in 2001 on the strength of his support among the rural poor. Though clearly corrupt, ruthless towards his opponents and uncaring about the rule of law, he also slashed the bureaucracy, scaled back the military and directed massive state spending to the poor. In 2006, the old oligarchy fought back. Thaksin’s supporters have since taken to the streets themselves in an attempt to bring down the current government, which is led by technocrats aligned with the old elite.
The creation of the New Politics Party is a sign that members of the elite who were once happy to pull the strings from behind the scenes are now intending to engage in politics more directly. But despite some Thais’ hopes, the development of new parties like Sondhi’s is hardly promising for democracy. One of Sondhi’s demands during the street protests was that a number of elected MPs should be replaced by appointed members, because the rural poor weren’t smart enough to choose their own representatives.
Members of the new party I’ve spoken with have suggested that, if another leader like Thaksin were to win the general election that’s due before 2011, they would again encourage the military to step in and ‘restore democracy’. For a clue to what democracy might mean in this context, look no further than the party’s internal politics: Sondhi was essentially made leader by acclamation, with the other contenders withdrawing before the vote.