Thailand is known for its dynamic economy, vibrant tourist industry, smiling hospitality, and pragmatism. But that’s hard to tell these days. On a recent walk near Siam Square, Bangkok’s iconic shopping and entertainment district, I watched a young, well-heeled woman gleefully defacing what remained of the signage in front of Thailand’s national police headquarters. In the square itself, the faces of speakers preaching hatred for the government flickered on countless looming flat screens. Trash cans had been plastered with pictures of incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. These were only the most visible signs of long-standing political tensions that bubbled over in November.

Before 2001, Thai prime ministers had come and gone with predictable frequency. They would be elected by voters in the provinces, but then readily ousted by the Bangkok elite -- the military, the bureaucracy, the network surrounding the monarchy, and key business interests. The system appealed to the Bangkok elite, and provincial voters routinely failed to come together to collectively support their own interests. But that all changed with the arrival on the political scene of Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon.

Thaksin hails from Chiang Mai, the cultural capital of Thailand’s north. Before he made it big, he was a police officer. Earlier than any other Thai politician, he recognized the value of tailoring his message to voter demands. He was the first to make use of modern polling and marketing techniques and was one of the earliest to recognize that the key to electoral success would be in capturing the vote in the country’s populous north and northeast, home to the fastest-growing segment of the Thai population -- urbanized villagers.

Although urbanized villagers are registered to vote in the countryside, they spend much of their time working in and around Bangkok’s industrial and service sectors; at the same time, the rural heartlands are rapidly urbanizing. The countryside has come to the city, and the city to the countryside. The urbanized villagers, Thaksin found, no longer wanted to work their rice fields -- they could hire cheap Burmese or Cambodian labor for that. Instead, they dreamed of sending their kids to college, and were ready to hustle two or three jobs to do it. Accordingly, he set out to win them over with virtually free health care, loan deferrals, and community development funds. The result: pro-Thaksin parties have won decisive victories in every Thai election of the last decade -- in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2011.

The old elite did not take his success lying down. By early 2006, Thaksin faced a range of accusations of corruption and human rights abuses in his government. Many of his former allies turned against him, starting yellow-shirted street protests to oppose his government and defend the monarchy, whose supporters believed Thaksin’s rise to be a challenge to royal standing. (Yellow is associated with Thailand’s widely-revered monarchy.) These events, which were relatively peaceful, set in train a bewildering sequence of color-coded political rallies, elections, judicial interventions, and military machinations that continues today.

Thaksin himself was ousted in a military coup in September 2006 while attending the UN General Assembly in New York. The courts dissolved his political party and banned him and his key allies from office for five years. Many voters, of course, would not be swayed: a rebranded version of Thaksin’s party comfortably won the first post-coup election and brought a stand-in, Samak Sundaravej, to power. The Constitutional Court then ousted Samak on the bizarre charge of his having illegally hosted a television cooking show. The courts abolished Thaksin’s political party once more, and this time the opposition, the Democrat Party -- which had lost the 2007 general election -- set up a government. Red-shirted pro-Thaksin protestors occupied parts of central Bangkok from March to May 2010, and faced a military crackdown that resulted in more than 90 deaths.

Tensions between pro- and anti-Thaksin forces subsided following the July 2011 election, in which Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, was elected prime minister. Pragmatic and soft-spoken, Yingluck confounded her critics with a penchant for compromise. She proved able to work well with both of Thaksin’s old adversaries, the palace and the army, latterly serving as her own minister of defense. Under her guidance, the factions made a deal: she could stay in office as long as she did not push the envelope on sensitive issues, such as the sacrosanct monarchy or the bloated military budget. Another implicit condition was that Thaksin, now living in Dubai, not return to Thailand. The deal between Yingluck and the establishment was never made public, and it tacitly excluded the opposition Democrat Party and the yellow- and red-shirt movements.

Until late 2013, everything seemed to be going well. On the surface, at least, Thailand was returning to normalcy. Then two things happened to disrupt it. First, Yingluck made her first serious political miscalculation. In the middle of the night on November 1, members of her party pushed through the lower house of Parliament a comprehensive amnesty bill for politically related offenses that had occurred between 2004 and 2013. The bill, which was opposed not only by the Democrat Party but also by many government supporters, would have paved the way for Thaksin’s return to Thailand. Prior to this episode, Yingluck had seemed to be her own woman, distancing herself from Thaksin’s more aggressive moves to secure a pardon. But the amnesty debacle suggested that she was ultimately beholden to her brother. Although Yingluck promptly killed the bill, her credibility was blown.

Second, recognizing that they had no chance of winning an election, Thaksin’s opponents rethought their strategy. Whereas former Democrat Party Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai had campaigned in the 1990s under the slogan “I believe in the parliamentary system,” in December 2013, all of the party’s members of parliament walked out and took up the street politics they had always professed to despise. Former Deputy Premier Suthep Theuksuban assumed the leadership of a new unified anti-Thaksin movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, which included the yellow-shirts. The PDRC quickly mobilized huge rallies in central Bangkok, drawing much of its support from the urban middle classes. According to an Asia Foundation survey, nearly two-thirds of the demonstrators had incomes of more than $1,000 a month -- good pay by Thai standards.

Thailand’s current political polarization both is and is not about Thaksin. He did not cause Thailand to change. Rather, he and his parties have identified and capitalized on a massive socioeconomic transformation, a shift in the aspirations of voters that has been underway for a couple of decades. Urbanized villagers are utterly weary of the relentless paternalism of Thailand’s capital city and its denizens. The PDRC repeatedly insists that Thaksin manipulated millions of uneducated, unsophisticated provincials into voting for him, five times in a row. Pro-Thaksin parties -- just like all other Thai parties -- have undoubtedly spent huge amounts of money to win elections, but electoral success on this scale cannot be bought. Like him or loathe him, Thaksin is simply the most popular Thai politician of the time.

Today, the PDRC urges reform and the end of corruption. But the Democrat Party has consistently opposed all manner of political reforms over the past two decades: the landmark 1997 people’s constitution was passed only after the party’s leader, Chuan Leekpai, was out of power. And Suthep’s vague current calls for a people’s assembly selected from different occupational groups sound like a reversion to authoritarianism, not a process of democratic reform. Further, for Suthep to reinvent himself now as an anti-corruption czar is deeply ironic: In 1995, he spectacularly brought down his own government after presiding over a notorious land reform program under which party cronies received land in Phuket meant for low-income farmers. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Yingluck has responded to the protests by calling for a snap election on February 2. The Democrat Party is boycotting it, and the vote may yet be postponed. Protesters already disrupted advance voting on January 26. And one protest leader was shot dead in Bangkok, the tenth person killed since the protests began back in November.

Under these conditions, an election will resolve little without a new agreement between rival factions. All must agree that elections and reforms are necessary, and that military coups and any form of violence are not. Yet, as law and order breaks down, such an accord seems far off. The army, which played a central role in allowing Yingluck to become prime minister in the first place, now looks likely to assume the role of power broker. Thailand’s generals, reluctant to stage a conventional coup d’état, which would make them a lightning rod for popular discontent in the countryside, will first try to find some middle ground, forcing Yingluck’s party to sign up for a thoroughgoing process of political reform and offering some face-saving concessions to allow the PDRC to wind down their protests.

Taking turns hitting at a Yingluck punching bag might provide some instant gratification for Bangkok’s frustrated middle classes, but these are the moves of people who are in deep denial about political realities: Thailand’s urbanized villagers are the country’s future, and they are not about to vanish. Thaksin is a deeply troubling figure, but so are some of the leaders of the anti-Thaksin movement. Rather than calling for vengeance and retribution, the protestors need to seek a compromise before violence claims more lives and erupts into open clashes on Bangkok’s streets.

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  • DUNCAN MCCARGO is a professor of political science at the University of Leeds and a senior research affiliate at Columbia University. He is author, most recently, of Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand.
  • More By Duncan McCargo