ad info

 > magazine
 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

Other News
TIME Europe
Asiaweek Services
Contact Asiaweek
About Asiaweek
Media Kit
Get up to 3 months of Asiaweek free when you subscribe online!


Battle of the Big Shots
The race for the prime ministership is on

'We are Stronger now':
Chalerm on the NAP's future prospects
Other People's Money:
A conspiracy case in Hong Kong involves Marcos bank accounts

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

This edition's table of contents | Home


Quick Scroll: More stories from Asiaweek, TIME and CNN


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN
Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?


COVER: Giant on the Move
An emerging Asian superpower
On the Move: The people who are reshaping the nation
Worth Knowing: People with a role to play as India grows
The Economy: Risk-takers and innovators take center-stage
Wealth: The big six
Question Time: An interview with Azim Hashim Premji
Personally Speaking: Distinguished Indians scan the way ahead
The Military: Adding muscle in a bid for a regional role
The Media: Tough competition in a free and lively environment
Mass Culture: From beauty to fashion, India sets the pace

COVER: Playing the Modern Game
Improve your golf game with better technology

Face Off: Audio recorders

Healthcare: Take care on websites for the unwell

Net Gains: Be wary of stock tips in chat rooms

E-vesting: The high cost of online trading

Asiaweek/CNN Tech Index: The Asiaweek/CNN basket of 40 companies

B2B: Learning the job online

Wired Exec: A Manila publisher at work and play

Cutting Edge: Point, shoot and print — digitally

Troops: Why America may have to pull its soldiers out of Asia

Pyongyang: Is there substance behind its new, improved style?

Letters & Comment: UMNO on the changes within


ASEAN: North Korea steals the limelight at the Bangkok meeting
Agreement: Rail uniting the Koreas
Interview: With East Timor's Gusmao and Ramos-Horta

INDONESIA: Who bombed the Philippine ambassador?

THAILAND: The big parties are gearing up for the general election
Interview: Chalerm on the NAP's future prospects

Scandals: Imelda is caught with her hand in the cookie jar

KASHMIR: A ceasefire brings hopes of peace — maybe

Newsmakers: Reading Anson Chan's moves

Viewpoint: Time to re-examine sanctions on Myanmar

Performance: Is Hong Kong's GEM the worst stock exchange?
Competition: How Asia's other second-boards are doing

Investing: Stay the course in telecommunications and electronics

Insurance: Agents scramble to sell the mainland peace of mind
Charge: Card issuers expect China's consumers to embrace credit

Business Buzz: The teetering house of Hyundai

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.