GILDED teacups, brocade curtains and public confirmations of private-jet transfers all contribute to the atmosphere in London’s poshest hotels. Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecoms tycoon and former prime minister of Thailand, is at home amid the luxury. As he discusses his complicated passport arrangements and the visit he paid Donald Trump during his campaign to become America’s president, he seems a fully paid-up member of the international jet set, rather than a politician with time-tested, grassroots appeal. Yet Mr Thaksin is not only among Thailand’s most successful politicians ever; he also showed the way for populists elsewhere in South-East Asia. His policies have been mimicked abroad—and even by his fiercest critics at home. Wealth inequalities and ethnic divisions make South-East Asia fertile ground for his style of majoritarian populism.
Parties linked to Mr Thaksin have won every Thai election since 2001. He was deposed by a coup in 2006 and lives in self-imposed exile, dodging a jail sentence at home while monitoring the fortunes of his Pheu Thai party. His sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, took its reins, and those of the country, until she, too, was ousted by a coup in 2014. The generals now in charge represent the military and royal elites on one side of the rift at the heart of the country’s politics. The Shinawatras gaze across from the other side, claiming to speak for rural types and the poor.
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Rather like Mr Trump, Mr Thaksin pulls off this feat despite his personal billions and elite credentials. His background, as a former police officer and successful ethnic-Chinese businessman, has more in common with his “yellow shirt” opponents in the Thai political and military establishment. Yet he inspires devotion among his “red shirt” followers in Thailand’s Lao-speaking north and north-east. He and his sister won the loyalty of the less well-off with big promises and bigger handouts. Millions benefited from costly programmes for rice farmers, scholarship schemes and the introduction of a “30-baht scheme”, whereby anyone could pay for a hospital visit with less than $1.
The legacy of such policies stretches across borders; similar health-care systems have been rolled out across South-East Asia. Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo (or Jokowi), will emphasise the success of his version when he campaigns for re-election next year. In Malaysia the administration elected in May, in the country’s first-ever transfer of power from one party to another, has abolished a hated sales tax of 6%—which brought in $10.5bn last year. Costly fuel subsidies have also been reintroduced.
But Mr Thaksin’s political legacy is about far more than introducing big-spending, pro-poor policies. His rule is also remembered for a brutal and lawless “war on drugs”, in which thousands were reported killed (all a bit exaggerated, he now claims; he “used a lot of bluff”). In this sense, a more obvious political heir is Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines. Opposition politicians estimate that as many as 20,000 people have been killed in Mr Duterte’s own extrajudicial campaign against alleged drug dealers. Like Mr Thaksin, he seems to enjoy almost inexplicable popularity. In a devoutly Catholic country, even his recent badmouthing of God (whom he called “stupid”) seems not to have dented it much. More generally, like Mr Thaksin, he has used that popularity to weaken the rule of law and undermine the country’s institutions.
Jokowi—a more plausible man of the people than either Mr Thaksin or Mr Duterte (the son of a cabinet minister)—has neither the personal mandate nor, mercifully, the ruthless hunger for power (at least, on the evidence so far) to follow suit. But neither Indonesia nor many other countries in the region are free of the dangers of a lurch into populist majoritarianism. Indeed, in countries as different as Singapore and Myanmar, that risk has long been cited as an argument against full-fledged democracy.
Populists can exploit two faultlines. One is economic. In most of the region, inequality is stark. Elite families have clung on to their wealth and power through various political transitions. The other is ethnic and communal, exacerbated in many cases by religious differences.
In much of South-East Asia, ethnic-Chinese minorities have dominated commerce and at times suffered resentment, discrimination and violence. In Malaysia for five decades, policy has sought to redress the economic imbalance through privileges given the Muslim-Malay majority. In Indonesia populist appeals to the Muslim majority can sway elections. Last year Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, an ethnic-Chinese Christian who succeeded Jokowi as governor of Jakarta, lost one election and is now in jail on trumped-up blasphemy charges. In Myanmar Muslims are in the minority. State-sanctioned pandering to the Buddhist majority’s hatred of the Rohingyas, a Muslim group, has driven about 720,000 from the country following appalling violence.
Populist leaders undermine democracy by harnessing its mechanisms for their own benefit. They succeed by purporting to have a unique ability to speak for voters disadvantaged in unequal societies. Authoritarianism festers in such conditions. Thailand has a poor way of dealing with unruly politicians: it uses coups. But even the country’s ruling generals are flirting with populism ahead of a much-delayed election next year. They still hand out subsidies to rice farmers and have introduced new social-welfare cards to provide the poor with monthly cash. From an ornate sofa, Mr Thaksin laments Thailand’s enduring wealth gap. “The economy is only good for a few, not for all,” he says. Yet he also claims to have seen the light, and to have turned against majoritarianism. Asked what he would do differently if he had another shot at running the country, he says he would not follow a “winner takes all” policy but an “embrace all” one instead. That is easy for him to say, of course, now that he is not winning.