[Viewpoint] Lessons on populism from Thailand

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[Viewpoint] Lessons on populism from Thailand

On July 2, the day before the general election of Thailand, I was stuck in heavy rain at night, hailing a taxi. I was about 20 minutes away from my hotel. Many cab drivers turned me down until I got in one.

But when I told him my destination, he said my hotel was in the opposite direction from his home and he was too tired to drive far. He politely asked me to get off and find another one. It was my fourth trip to Bangkok in a year, and I never had a hard time finding a taxi, much less being turned down by the driver. So I got on the subway, and I was convinced when I talked to Thai students on the train.

The taxi drivers were holding a rally supporting former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s party all day long, and many of the drivers returned to their hometown to cast a vote in the general election. The Pheu Thai Party, led by the former prime minister, who is in exile after being deposed in a military coup, has offered a campaign promise tailored just for taxi drivers.

If the party wins, it will issue credit cards to the taxi drivers. The credit cards will allow the drivers to settle the cost of fuel and maintenance by a month according to the payment cycle, and it is an attractive offer to the taxi drivers, who make about 500 baht ($16.50) a day.

To win the support of the voters in the farming and fishing villages as well as the working-class voters in the cities, both the opposition PTP and the ruling Democrat Party are making rosy promises. In order to implement the promises made by the PTP, it would need four times the annual budget of Thailand.

The supporters I met at the PTP headquarters said that they voted for the opposition party in order to get back their rights manipulated by the anti-Thaksin vested interests, such as the military authorities.

In 2005, Thaksin Shinawatra won re-election and became the first prime minister to serve a second term. Thaksin, who was full of confidence after the election victory, took hostile actions against the traditional establishment, thinking he was backed by the majority of the citizens, who were of the working class.

He ignored protests by the opposition warning about financial breakdown and pursued populist policies, such as offering free medical care and writing off debts for farming households. The opposition developed into a military coup, and Thaksin returned to power briefly before the anti-Thaksin Yellow Shirts occupied the airports and the government buildings. The Democrat Party seized power through political collusion, and the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts staged street demonstrations in downtown Bangkok.

The people in Thailand were divided and the public sentiments were torn apart. A lawful election result was overturned by street protests and the military authorities destroyed the political order, but the anti-Thaksin actions were all justified in the name of punishing Thaksin. The sky over Bangkok was blanketed by dark smoke from burning tires.

Now, the political structure of Thailand has returned to the status before the coup in 2006. Both the pro-Thaksin factions and the anti-Thaksin groups have become more prudent. The anti-Thaksin camp respected the popular will and accepted the sweeping victory of the PTP.

The pro-Thaksin politicians have emphasized that reviving the struggling economy is the priority. Thailand’s painful experience has shown us how dangerous it is to rely on populism without seeking compromise.

The Korean politicians who are blocking the streets and calling for half-priced college tuition should ruminate over the lesson of the political populism that Thailand has learned in the last five years before they recklessly light up the candles.

*The writer is the JoongAng Ilbo’s Hong Kong correspondent.

By Cheong Yong-whan
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