October 1973: a 9-year-old boy, cloistered in a Bangkok compound, flips on the television. No cartoons for him. Instead, the box broadcasts images of Thai students and workers flooding nearby streets to protest the autocratic generals ruling their nation. The boy finds the scenes enthralling, sparking a political awakening unusual in any kid, much less the scion of a privileged Thai-Chinese family. Just three years later, a violent military crackdown would bring this brief experiment in Thai democracy to an end. But by that point, the boy, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was studying overseas in Britain. "I experienced the optimism of the 1973 democratic revolution, but I wasn't there for the disillusionment of the 1976 massacre," recalls Abhisit, who at age 27 was voted in as one of Thailand's youngest-ever parliamentarians. "Maybe that's what made me believe in the power of politics."
Meet the idealist who may well become Thailand's next Prime Minister. As head of Thailand's oldest political party, the Democrats, Abhisit has emerged as an early front-runner in elections slated for December. Yet history has taken an ironic twist for the now 43-year-old politician. The upcoming polls are the handiwork of the very military whose overthrow spurred Abhisit's political passions more than three decades ago. After deposing Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless army coup last September, Thailand's ruling junta promised to restore democracy by the end of this year. Now that the new constitution overseen by the generals has won a 58% approval rating in a referendum on Aug. 19, the junta appears committed to carrying out its pledge to hold elections by year's end. But Thaksin, who has been charged with corruption, is in exile, living mostly in London, while top members of his Thai Rak Thai Party have been banned from politics after a junta-appointed tribunal convicted them of electoral fraud in May. That leaves the Democrats in their strongest position since losing power to Thaksin back in 2001. Hardly a cocky politician, Abhisit is predicting success in December. "I believe that democracy will reward the Democrats," he says with a bashful grin. "Of course, you could say the same about the Democrats in America, too. Maybe we'll have both dreams come true."
With his youthful charm, Oxford University pedigree and policy geek's exuberance for subjects as esoteric as tapioca-derived alternative fuel and campaign-finance reform, Abhisit resembles a certain heavyweight from the U.S. Democratic Party. But there's one big difference: unlike Bill Clinton, Abhisit didn't grow up in trailer-park country. Although the patrician Thai Democrat can count on support from the urban middle class, as well as residents of Thailand's largely Muslim south, Abhisit will have a tougher time convincing the rural masses that he feels their pain. Thailand's agrarian northeast, in particular, was the voting bloc that delivered a huge mandate to Prime Minister Thaksin in 2001, after he campaigned on an avowedly populist platform. Indeed, on Aug. 19, 62% of northeastern Thais voted against the draft constitution, a rejection not only of the charter but of the generals who ousted the man they still consider their champion. "Bridging this [urban-rural] divide is Abhisit's biggest challenge," says Chaiwat Satha-Anand, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University. Even Abhisit, who is trying to court farmers with promises of free education and low-cost health care, acknowledges an old Thai proverb: "Rural voters elect governments; urban voters get rid of them."
Complicating matters is Thailand's perennial wild card: the military. Shortly after seizing power, coup leader General Sonthi Boonyaratglin reiterated that he had no interest in remaining in politics after elections were held. Earlier this summer, however, a junta aide hinted that perhaps Sonthi might throw his hat in the ring. The general hasn't committed so far. Still, after casting his yes vote in the constitutional referendum in the province of Lop Buri, Sonthi did let slip that if he were to run, this military stronghold where he was once posted as major-general would be the place he'd like to represent. But if Sonthi does enter the race, he could end up delivering the election to the very forces he tried to suppress with last year's coup. "No one who supported Thaksin is going to vote for the general," says Sunai Phasuk, Thailand consultant for New York City-based Human Rights Watch. "So if Sonthi is going to steal votes from any camp, it could be from Abhisit's base." The possible beneficiaries of an army candidacy? Refugees from Thaksin's now dissolved party who have banded together with an unlikely coalition of ultraconservatives and democracy activists to form the People's Power Party.
Even if Abhisit wins in December, he won't wield as much power as did Thaksin. When the generals seized control of Thailand last year, they ripped up the previous constitution. The replacement rolls back the executive branch's influence and calls for nearly half the senate to be appointed instead of elected as before. The military is also given certain supervisory powers over the democratically elected leader. The upshot: Thailand could soon return to days when weak coalition governments rose and fell with the predictability of the monsoons.
Abhisit proposes to fix that by amending the constitution should he assume the PM post. That could mean yet another referendum. "I have faith that the electorate will do what's right," he says, surprising words perhaps for a Bangkok patrician whose party was overwhelmed by Thaksin's populist tactics six years ago. Whatever happens, at least one former Prime Minister is confident about Thailand's future. "We're good at improvising," says Anand Panyarachun, who steered the nation during two separate stints in the early 1990s. "We may not be as systematic as some other countries in our democracy, but we'll figure out a way forward." A certain candidate, remembering his political awakening as a 9-year-old boy, would no doubt agree.