Thailand: Elections - The Teacher or the Salesman?

2001

Dr Glen Lewis

Thailand is preparing for its first national election since the new 1997 Constitution. Set for 6 January 2001, the field has narrowed down to the Thai-Rak-Thai party of Thaksin Shinawatra and the incumbent Democrats under Chuan Leekpai. Locals see Chuan as the teacher and Thaksin as the salesman.

Chuan has a reputation for personal probity and is one of the least rich of Thai politicians. Thaksin is in the list of the world’s richest men and has a reputation for cutting corners. Chuan’s down side is that he is seen as a ditherer, and a front man for less scrupulous colleagues, such as the former Interior Minister Sanan. Chuan and his Treasurer Tarrin have also attracted criticism for being too obliging to the IMF and the WTO. Chuan no longer generates much public excitement, yet his government can claim that they have brought the country through one of its most difficult economic crises. However, the economy’s recovery is very, very slow.

Thaksin is a telecommunications magnate. His Shin group owns the three Thaicom satellites, the AIS mobile phone company, and his IBC group pioneered pay-TV. He was previously an unelected Foreign Minister in the first Chuan government, then Deputy-Premier under Chavalit. Since founding his Thai-Rak-Thai party some two years ago, his face has featured on billboards nationwide.

Thaksin is now under investigation by the National Counter Corruption Commission that previously brought Sanan down. Thaksin faces similar charges for failing to declare assets he divested to his wife and his servants. Even if elected, Thaksin could then be deposed by the NCCC and banned from politics for five years. A constitutional crisis could result.

The man who has used the media to build his own fortunes is now under sustained attack by other media he does not own. Although he recently bought a 40 per cent interest in the only non-state owned television station iTV, he is regularly criticised in both the Thai and English language press. His refusal to debate Chuan has been slated. A transcript of a television interview with Thaksin by host Senator Chirmsak Pinthong about his purchase of a golf course from Sanoh Thienthong also has been included as part the NCCC inquiry.

Thaksin has been widely criticised for buying many of the politicians that have joined his party. His policies also contrast with the Democrats more sober ones. He has promised a three year moratorium on farm debt, and that he will protect Thai companies from foreign takeovers. The first promise is economically unfeasible, while the second is clearly in his own personal interest.

To simplify this election to Thaksin vs.Chuan is of course too crude. Still in the wings are the old warhorses of Chavalit, Banharn, and the younger Korn Dabaransiri. Thaksin will have to forge an alliance with one or more of these, even if victorious, which means the older, country-based parties can resume the positions they held before 1997. Whatever happens, electors are being treated to quite a sideshow as millions of baht are being handed out in pre-election vote buying.

WATCHPOINT: Will Chuan and Tarrin’s pro-globalisation Democrats remain in power, or will Thaksin and the older parties win and attempt a nationalist counter-revolution?

 

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