Friday, August 20, 2010


(from the Bangkok Post, August 21, 2010)

There is the story of a provincial politician, unique to his time and place but universal in resonance, who came to electoral prominence by rousing the poor and trampled-upon into a veritable political army.

He talked the provocative talk of the populist, if not the demagogue; one could even say he talked his way into power, but he made good on some of the promises. He recognised the latent power of the poor, though not always in good ways or with the best of intentions.

Neither handsome nor heroic, he was likeable in a corny, folksy way.

Despite his gift of gab, he was not a good listener, but he didn't drink and he worked hard and went to great lengths to get his name in the paper. From the start, he treated rural areas as his rear base and the media as a hand-maiden to personal ambition.

When he first announced his desire to lead, he was ridiculed and scorned by the established elite and their henchmen. When he vowed to deliver free health care and access to education for all, he caused panic among vested interests.

He had his lucky breaks, but was also supported by powerful establishment figures who did not see the bold maverick as a threat. He had a crack staff of assistants, including media minds, paid agents and security muscle.

He travelled the hinterland by train, bringing the drama of government to remote places where a face-to-face between leaders and the led was known primarily by its absence.

"Make 'em cry, make 'em laugh, make 'em hate you," his advisers urged, anything to keep him at the centre of public attention. He wanted fame and power badly, yet acknowledged it was something deep inside him that even he did not fully understand.

As his circle of power and influence spread, flames of populism were fanned. There were fiery speeches, huge gatherings in public places, torches being waved in the night.

He ran a modern, media-savvy campaign, and liked to have journalists in his pocket, not just to dominate the newspapers and airwaves but to conduct "research" on his political foes. He kept a black book on the vulnerabilities of others to keep them in line. Some could be bought simply with money, as in absolving a bank debt; others could be gradually entrapped in the web of their dreams, by exploiting their passion for ideals.

He could be generous, bestowing wealth, privilege and power on his loyal crew, and he could take it away at whim.

Posters bearing his likeness were everywhere, his witty slogans distributed widely. At rallies one could expect a carnival atmosphere with free food, giveaways and entertainment.