Monday, October 15, 2007

Who will be the next prime minister of Thailand?

(Left to right: Abhisit Vejajiva, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh , Samak Sundaravej)

For those who have only experienced elections in a western country, it's important to appreciate that Thai elections and political parties are not the same.

On the surface, Thai elections may seem similar to their British counterparts. Indeed the system was modelled on the UK version, the only differences are that Thailand's upper house is a senate and the kingdom uses a mix of 'first past the post' voting (about 80%) and proportional representation(the other 20%)

Since the absolute monarchy was overthrown by Pridi and his group in 1932, Thai government has been run by either a junta or a coalition government. Coalition governments may seem like a good idea but they are not. In Thailand at least, coalition governments equate to corporate businessmen looking to engage in power plays, favours and corruption. Party policies are thin on the ground and keep promises even rarer. Party campaigns are done by patronage and advertising, promotion by policy or party vision simply does not happen.

At this point I should mention the only exception to this is Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party. TRT actually made some polices and went through with them. They were also the only party (to my knowledge) that gained a full majority in the house (248 seats from 500, but they bought out another party just to be absolutely sure). Too bad they used that for bad rather than good.

So when TRT were dissolved by the Constitutional Court and their executives banned from politics, it didn't take long for many of the veteran rats to crawl back on the political ship as they sensed the power vacuum. New parties sprang up everywhere, the most notable being Pracharaj Party lead by former Thaksin ally Sanoh Thienteng (who jumps ship whenever his party is not in power) and former PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who apparently thinks that running Thailand into the ground during the Asian Financial Crises makes him an attractive proposition for re-election.*

But the biggest concern for this writer is the re-emergence of Thaksin's former TRT allies. The execs who were banned from politics have thrown their academic and considerable financial support behind the non executive members who in turn - after several games of political musical chairs - have merged into the People Power Party. (Don't be fooled, Thai parties use the cool and modern sounding names to hide their utter incompetence and lack of vision).

The PPP purposely chose the man as closely linked with Thaksin as possible his, name is Samak Sundaravej This man is basically Thaksin without the economic prowess or desire for health care. Samak is a former Bangkok governor and like Chavalit, he sees his record of being utterly ineffective as a good resume. His very first speech as party leader was a perfect summary of his - and his party's - mentality:

[To corruption investigators] "You smack me and I'll smack you back" (Bangkok Post)

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Thai politics.

The PPP have stormed the north east of Thailand, shamelessly promoting themselves on their Thaksin connections. The PPP rally this week was attended by 3,00 or 25,000 depending on which newspaper you read, and saw supporters holding signs saying "Vote Samak, get Thaksin". Meanwhile the PPP speakers spent their time outlining not policies, not visions for Thailand, not assurances of clean behaviour but a litany of how great Thaksin was and how he was being bullied by the junta. That was it folks, that was all PPP had to offer.

Already internal splits have begun. Today, PP member Chalerm Yoobamrung threatened to take his ball and go home if PPP did not allow his sons to run for election :

"If People Power does not select me and my two sons - Wan and Duang - as Bangkok candidates, I'll be ready to leave the party,The bottom line is that it must accept me and my sons as a package," Chalerm said.

Chalerm said if he left People Power he might join Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who has suggested he may establish a party. He will talk with Chavalit today.

Source: The Nation

And you thought politicians behaved like adults who cared about their voters.

There is a thorn in the PPP side however. Fromer Junta leader, now self nominated deputy PM, Sonthi Boonyarakin is on a mission to stop PPP. Under the guise of "stopping vote buying" the current government and election agencies are giving PPP a hard time. Their new party advert (surprise! It is simply a promise to bring back Thaksin's policies) was rejected by the Election Commission without reason. PPP howled in disdain, forgetting the days when TRT dominated TV advertising and the Democrats received less than ten percent of their air time allowance.

The others side of this equation is Abhisit Vejajaiva of the Democrats. Abhisit has handled himself well throughout the coup and the dissolution trial. As I've said before, he is a genuinely intelligent, progressive politician. However, he has constantly failed to show the leadership or passion that is required. Abhisit failed to offer genuine policies to counter TRT's populism, he failed to project himself as the ideal replacement for Thaksin after the coup and he has failed to win hearts or minds in the North East during this election run up.

Some has voiced concerns that Abhisit may be too soft to resist military interference in his government, a further concern Abhisit has never addressed. Thais see youth as a disadvantage in leadership and Abhisit has not offered any response to criticisms that he is too young to lead the nation.

Yet undoubtedly, Abhsiit is the best choice for Thailand. He is the only genuine new breed of politician available (the guy is not even fat and ugly for gooness sake!) and he has taken genuine steps to reduce corruption inside and outside his party. If he does not take this opportunity to steer the Democrats to a clear majority in the house, he will have only himself to blame and Thailand will suffer from another era of weak, greedy, incompetent coalition governments.


hobby said...

I agree that from a western viewpoint Abhisit is clearly the only credible candidate, but is he mean & tough enough to be Thai PM?

IMO the majority of Thai do not seem particularly interested in having a 'clean' and rational leader, but even if he overcomes that electoral hurdle, there are still the very difficult tasks of cleaning up corruption and putting the military back to the barracks and out of politics and business.

With Samak & Chavalit the people know what they will get (more of the same), but Abhisit is an unknown quantity, and IMO the country might not be ready for a real politician yet.

fall said...

About the Dem TV ads, you might want to add that all the campaign and advertisement that already aired, they did not count under the budget cap of this election (surprise!). Since the election decree is not in effect yet.

Agree that Samak is taking Thaksin-imitator platform without the grace or savvy (if you can call it that). But Abhisit promotion point is only youth and new face (his resume is a joke). The Thairath political satire cartoon always draw him as puppet with string attach, and there is reason for that.

The picking for this election is, indeed, poor (And god forbid Prachai).