Though former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose family originally came from the northern suburbs of Chiang Mai, has lived in exile for years, in the Chiang Mai area, until the spring of 2014, it was almost as if he never left. Cab drivers displayed his photo on their dashboard right next to Buddha images and pictures of ancient Thai royals. Community radio stations broadcast his speeches from exile, and vendors in nearby villages sold posters of the politician grinning and T-shirts bearing his image. Billboards featuring Thaksin and other local politicians from his party dominated the landscape on the sides of roads.
“Thaksin was the first politician who listened to poor people,” said one store owner in the Chiang Mai suburbs. “He came here and he heard our problems and he didn’t just tell us what to do, like the Democrats [the other main political party in Thailand, which has less support among the poor] … No one from Bangkok was like that before.”
But it was not only Thaksin’s willingness to appear to be listening to poorer, rural Thais that won him office in 2001 and that made his organization the most powerful political party in the country---until a 2014 military coup essentially banned Thai political parties in another attempt to defang Thaksin’s political machine. Thaksin’s state capitalist policies were enormously popular with the majority of poor and working class Thais. Even in Thaksin’s 2000-2001 campaign, he was the first Thai politician to really promise a platform of policies to voters, including many types of state intervention in the economy such as new state credits for microenterprises, a new state-funded universal health care scheme, and many others. The platform was credited by many Thai voters and political scientists as the most important reason for his smashing 2001 win.
For more on the rise of Thailand’s state capitalism, and its possible fall, see my new piece in The Diplomat.