11 , 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 31 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK
of the Big Shots
race for the prime ministership is on
By ROGER MITTON Bangkok
'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
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
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.
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November 30, 2000