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From Our Correspondent: No Way Back
Thailand faces an election under new rules
By JULIAN GEARING

November 1, 2000
Web posted at 7:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 7:30 a.m. EDT


Almost a decade ago I remember trying to tune in my radio to anything but the martial music drowning out regular Thai radio programs. It was February 1991 and the government had just fallen to a military coup. Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan and his so-called "buffet cabinet" faced the barrel of a gun and there was a news blackout. Many Thais merely shrugged their shoulders, even in Chatichai's home constituency of Nakhon Ratchasima, and refused to raise a finger in protest. Coups d'etat were a way of life back then.

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Today, politicians are lining up for a national election — and there are worrying signs that the transition will not be smooth. Nightly TV news coverage shows hassled politicians denying allegations of breaking new election rules, MPs switching parties so that the people lose track of their allegiances, and talk show hosts groaning over the dire state of Thai politics. Commentators warn of chaos, a possible right-wing backlash. Will history repeat itself?

No, it will not. There will be no military coup. The ranks of the Thai armed forces may contain the odd trigger-happy general, but the political ambitions of the military have been largely contained. Under the guidance of a succession of commanders — Gen. Wimol Wongwanich, Gen. Chetta Thanajaro and today Gen. Surayudh Chulanont — the army has become more professional. Today, generals look more likely to hang up their uniform and turn to the ballot box if they are interested in political power. But they, like other political hopefuls, will find a different situation to the one that existed a decade ago. And here lies the crux of the problem today.

Politicians have the jitters over a new constitution with new rules. Corruption watchdogs are snapping at the heels of both "good" and "bad" lawmakers. Calm men in dark suits at the new National Counter-Corruption Commission are methodically leafing through files of papers alleging dodgy share transfers and false assets declarations. Nobody would appear to be immune. These hard-to-intimidate officials brought down the second-most powerful man in the country, former Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart. And they have no qualms about looking into allegations against Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai and his main rival, Thai Rak Thai Party leader Thaksin Shinawatra.

Over at the office of the new Election Commission, equally calm men in dark suits are gearing up for another round of disruption, only on a bigger scale to what they have caused already. Let me explain. The new constitution, introduced in 1997, gives this election watchdog unprecedented powers to keep an eye out for evidence of vote-buying and fraud. It has the authority to disqualify a political candidate or call for a re-run of a poll. Manoon Roopachakorn knows all about that. The former colonel and coup-maker had his "victory" in Thailand's first Senate election declared void earlier this year after allegations of vote-buying and fraud were presented to the Election Commission. Manoon had to go to the polls again. And again. In the end, he won. Some constituencies had a total of four re-runs. As the process went on, weeks turned into months and the new Senate appeared in danger of not being formed.

What will happen in a national election, likely to take place at the end of this year or in January 2001? Doomsayers warn that "chaos" could ensue if the Election Commission does its job. A serious delay in the formation of the next government is possible, they say. Those who fear they may lose out in this historic poll — most notably former premier Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, himself a former army commander — are arguing for a government of national unity, allowing all the main players to take part. This would be a backward step.

There are indications the Thai people are losing patience with mediocrity. They are getting fed up with loud-mouthed and unscrupulous politicians. Pressure groups and the media are watching out for their activities. People power is growing. Thailand may not yet have a politically savvy population, but acceptance of the old ways is diminishing.

Yes, there may be chaos, there may be trouble, but the new constitution needs to be given a chance to work, even if it does delay the formation of the next government. Let the watchdogs do their work. This way lies progress — at last.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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