Ten years ago, in 1998, Thailand was still struggling with the impact of the financial crisis and what was perceived to be the do-nothing Democrat Party government. Many thousands had lost their jobs and, depending who you believe, were either received in rural heartlands thanks to the outstanding kindness of the Thai people or were forced to suffer under or full unemployment as an alternative to entering risk-taking labour – or some of both, of course.
Thailand had never had a democratically-elected government which had either ruled on its own or served a full term. Money and personality patronage politics dominated the country and the elite interests maintained a strict hand on who would be permitted to taste any amount of actual power. Economic development, based on low-labour cost manufacturing and export-oriented growth had permitted the argument that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ even when it was demonstrably clear it was doing no such thing but was ensuring a constant supply of new workers willing to work in factories and maintaining downward pressure on wages.
Apart from a few small parties, there was next to no ideological content in the manifestoes offered by the leading parties and it was difficult to fit a cigarette paper between any of them when it came to substantive issues.
Much of this has changed in the last decade and while it has not all been wonderful, some of those changes are certainly worth celebrating. Irrespective of opinions about Thai Rak Thai, it is indisputable that the electoral success of the party (and the very broad coalition that initially sustained it) has changed the grounds on which parties can be elected (when elections are permitted, that is). The pro-poor and redistributive elements of Thai Rak Thai have now become the centre ground over which ideological arguments rage – the quality of the discourse is still generally low but it is possible to improve it. Increased and identifiable ideological positions are the best way to reduce the influence of money politics and vote buying.
The rural poor have been given a stake in the future of the country and seem determined to keep it, if they are permitted to do so by the same elite interests whose grasp on the throat of power has been reinforced by certain recent events.
Poverty continues to be reduced and more and more poor people have the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families – not all will be able to take those opportunities of course but they should still be provided. The sky has not fallen as a result.