Saturday, June 23, 2007

Why Abhisit must stand alone

Abhisit Vejjajiva should be feeling on top of the world these days. The Democrat leader has seen his party survive a transparent and efficiently handled dissolution trial in the Constitutional Court and - in the same fall of the axe - the opposition Thai Rak Thai party was dissolved. It created an ideal political void, seemingly tailor made for the Oxford educated leader.

Just when it seemed things couldn't get any better, the military junta announced the date of the national election could be bought forward, stealing time away from any rival party or disassociated politicians looking to clamour back to power.

So why, then, does the young party leader seem to continue festering a deep streak of insecurity?

Abhisit appeared recently at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Bangkok to state his cause to foreign journalists. I was unable to attend but a colleague informed me that Abhisit presented himself well but seemed more concerned with drawing criticism of Thaksin and the current political situation than he was with propagating his own ideas. "Lack of vision" was the abridged summary of the Democrat's front man.

It seems the foreign journalists aren't the only ones having their doubts. Reports from The Nation state that since the conclusion of the dissolution trial, Abhisit has been in regular contact with political heavyweights like Banharn Silapa-archa and Chavalit Yongchaiyud. One doesn't need embellished imagination to guess at what was being discussed.

Clearly, Abhisit lacks faith his own group's ability to take a clear majority in the elections. In such circumstances, he has decided to follow the laws of realpolitik and co -operate with the old brass to ensure he gets a controlling stake in the house.

But for Abhisit to collaborate with 'old school' leaders like Barnharm and Chavalit carries huge risk.

Everything about Abhisit Vejjajiva represents a "new generation" of Thai politician. Young, fresh faced and western educated, Abhisit has always presented himself as a detachment from the past that is unaffiliated with military politics and perceived as cleaner and less contentious than Thaksin. His promises of asset declarations for all MPs and pledges of transparent checks and balances have always been delivered with the gentle but firm tone of voice and the handsome smile that endears him to the Bangkok middle classes.

Abhisit also speaks with boldness of a progressive breed. He openly criticsed Sondhi and Thaksin's dual use of astrologers in the process of politics and has pledged compulsory asset declaration for his own party MPs.

Such actions at well with the core bases, but as Abhisit well knows, it hasn't gained any ground with the traditional non Democrat areas such as the North East. In such areas the ghost of Thaksin the politician looms large, and voters are less concerned with emulating western style politics than with receiving tangible benefits for voting one particular way. So far Abhisit has failed to convince them, and it appears his concern has forced him to look to the experience of old leaders.

But Abhisit must be sure that in associating himself with the likes of Banharn Silapa-archa for the sole purpose of reaching a new audience, he doesn't destroy his own base. Neither Barharn nor Chavilit achieved a lot of good for Thailand during their reign, and time has done little to boost the public's faith in the old brass. If Abhisit is sincere about reducing the "old boys" network of corruption in government, he cannot possibly expect people to accept his collaboration with a man who gained the nickname "Mr ATM" during his tenure as PM.

Likewise, Chavalit Yongchaiyud has done little to restore himself credibility in recent months. As the junta and the people struggled to return to normal after the coup of 2006, Chavilit was more concerned with making sure that everyone heard his cries of discontent at the ousting of Thaksin and publicly demanded "a deep, deep wai" from the CNS. For many voters, the old general represents the antithisis of a modern progressive government.

None of the candidates for a coalition with The Democrats have shown any interest in party policies, all of them have shown a willingness to switch parties and jump ship at any given time.

Abhisit can see the opportunity of his career looming ahead of him and he's straining to ensure it doesn't pass him by. But in doing so, he must ensure that he doesn't wreck everything he stands for by associating with the type of politician who is everything Abhisit professes not to be. The only true victory for The Democrats in the next election would be a clear majority. If Abhisit can't do it achieve that now, he never will.

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