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AUGUST 11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Battle of the Big Shots
The race for the prime ministership is on
By ROGER MITTON Bangkok

ALSO
'We are Stronger now':
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During the recent ASEAN conclave in Bangkok, Thai Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan joked that it might be his last such meeting. He may be right. Before the group's next gathering in late November, Thailand will hold a general election. Surin is in the Democrat Party, the dominant member of the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, and it is in danger of losing power. The latest warning came in last month's Bangkok governorship election in which the Democrat candidate came in a distant third. The only solace for Chuan's men was that the candidate for their main rival, the Thai Rak Thai party of tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, also lost. The winner was Samak Sundaravej, a right-wing throwback to the authoritarian governments of the 1970s. The magnitude of Samak's romping victory stunned the big-party bosses.

"The result showed that the people are not happy with either the Democrats or Thai Rak Thai," says Kriengsak Charoenwongsak, head of Bangkok's Institute of Future Studies for Development. "And they found an alternative in Samak." That, of course, is bad news for both Chuan and Thaksin, both of whom are gunning to be prime minister at the end of the year. The odds, however, are stacked more against Chuan than against Thaksin, because the latter has managed — despite his brief, checkered career in government — to present himself as a new, go-ahead force in Thai politics. Chuan, on the other hand, is very old hat, and given the citizenry's preference for a fresher administration, he will need to work very hard to be returned to the premiership.

Yet oddly, Chuan's second term as PM started out so well. His Democrat-led coalition took over from the widely discredited government of Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh in 1997, when the country was in the depths of the financial crisis, and managed to restore stability. But three years on, his much-touted finance and commerce ministers have been unable to spark zest into the moribund economy. The stock market is the worst-performing in the region, aside from Indonesia's, and the baht is sliding badly. Last month, the Bank of Thailand had to step in to bolster the currency, sending shivers through the business community as memories of 1997 returned.

This has provided ammunition for even the much-scorned Chavalit. "Chuan used to attack me in parliament, saying he did everything much better than I did," he says. "I say: How come? My baht was only 37, yours is now at 41-42. My SET [stock-market index] was 570, yours is only 280." It may be simplistic, but it strikes a chord. While few say they want Chavalit back, there is undisguised frustration at the lackluster performance of Chuan's economic team. "People just feel the pace of recovery is not good enough," says Supavud Saicheua, vice president of Merrill Lynch Phatra Securities in Bangkok. "Banks are still not lending, business recovery is not broad-based and the progress of financial reforms is below expectations."

Chuan knows this, which is why he is holding off the election until almost the last minute. Indications are that he will dissolve parliament once it has passed next year's budget and an electoral procedure law; the election will likely come in late October or early November (it must be called by Nov. 17). That means the Democrats have two to three months to turn things around. Can they do it? Says Supavud: "It's going to be very tough, especially when the average man in the street does not seem to feel any better off. Really the prime ministership is up for grabs."

And Thaksin wants it. But the Bangkok governorship result was a huge setback for him. His candidate, Sudarat Keyuraphan, did get twice as many votes as her Democrat rival. But as Chuan's men gleefully point out, they did not put in the same amount of effort as Thaksin did for Sudarat. In fact, they came close to letting their man hang out to dry, yet he still came in third, with a quarter of a million votes.

The Democrats figure that when they shift their Bangkok machinery into high gear, they can build on this and secure a large number of the capital's 37 parliamentary seats. They probably won't win as many as last time (29). "I agree we will have a hard time winning 20 seats," concedes Democrat MP Ong-Ard Klampaiboon. But after the Sudarat debacle, the same can be said for Thaksin. His people had been confidently predicting 20 or more seats from Bangkok, but they will most likely end up with about 10 to 15.

The good news for Thaksin is that Thai elections are won in the countryside, not Bangkok — and that is where Thaksin may romp home. With his massive war chest, he has successfully recruited scores of MPs from other parties. Says Pitak Intrawityanunt, a former Chuan cabinet minister who jumped to Thai Rak Thai this year: "It's true we are getting a lot of MPs from other parties. They come because they want to get elected and they think they have the best chance with Thai Rak Thai." (There are other inducements too, if the local press is to be believed.) The biggest catch has been Sanoh Thienthong and his faction of 30 or so MPs from Chavalit's New Aspiration Party (NAP). The influx of old-style influence-mongers like Sanoh has upset some founding members of Thai Rak Thai, whose original credo was to accept only clean, meritorious and tech-savvy candidates. But the defections have certainly boosted Thaksin's chances for the top job.

Chuan's main hope is that his coalition partners will stick by him, but many are unhappy because they feel ignored by the Democrats' economic team. Still, they are also angry at Thaksin for poaching so many of their members, so it is hard to say where they will go. If they stick by Chuan, he is in with a shout — especially since, under Thailand's new Constitution, the next prime minister will not necessarily come from the party with the most seats, but instead will be chosen by a free vote of all the MPs in the new parliament.

If, as seems likely, Thai Rak Thai and the Democrat Party finish in the top two spots with 100 to 150 seats each (out of a total of 500), then among those bringing up the rest of the field will be the NAP. Samak's election as Bangkok governor provided a boost for the party, since he was a member of Chavalit's last government and is an ideological bedfellow. In addition, Chalerm Yubamrung, the Bangkok don for the NAP, delivered key areas of the city to Samak (see interview page 27) — a favor the city governor is unlikely to forget in the coming election. Says Kriengsak: "The NAP is not as weak as the press portrays it and will win a few more seats than expected. It could be very decisive in choosing who will be prime minister."

Personalities, of course, will also come into play. Thaksin is famously thin-skinned and brooks no dissent. Chuan is the supreme conciliator, while Chavalit is geniality personified. When Thailand's 38 million voters go to the polls in a few months, it will be a fascinating exercise in seeing which combination of these contrasting personalities will prevail.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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