Tuesday, 29 September 2009

No time to lose for Abhisit as reality bytes

By Sopon Onkgara
The Nation
Published on September 29, 2009
(Post in CAAI News Media)

BACK from the limelight in New York, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva faces the painful reality of dealing with unresolved issues which, if mishandled, could escalate into a crisis of confidence in his leadership.

His speeches and responses to the media in the US reflected his comfort in speaking his mind without party hotshots looking over his shoulder. What he said about ideals and new democratic politics is suitable for a Western sensibility but it is difficult to end gutter politics at home.

The tough nut to crack is the appointment of the police chief, blocked time and again by antagonists in the National Police Committee. It is still unclear whether Abhisit will be successful in his choice, as other equations remain unchanged.This is a true test of his leadership. Failure on this will raise serious public doubt over his ability to control the national agenda amidst the prevailing economic problems. Already, there have been chuckles and taunts among political watchers who see the young prime minister as too soft towards his adversaries, even more so in his treatment of senior party members who disagree with his position. Weakness could embolden coalition partners to be more demanding in their push for approval of big projects promising large kickbacks.

There is ongoing haggling in the House over how the Constitution should be amended to accommodate MPs with self-serving interests. Six key points proposed so far have nothing to do with the public interest, but are mainly designed to open wider access for MPs to mess with bureaucrats and to pursue self-enrichment possibilities.

What Abhisit hopes to use as a delaying tactic is a public referendum for the amendment. He insisted on this condition during his talk to the press yesterday. If all parties agree, the amendment process could be completed within nine months, after which the House could be dissolved for a general election.

That's too long. The opposition, as well as the coalition partners, does not want to give the Democrats that luxury of time. The opposition and the red shirts have been demanding almost daily, and quite desperately, that Abhisit dissolve the House, resign and call a new election.

They do not want a referendum, being aware that their amendments could be voted down. A group of senators hostile to the opposition does not want such amendments. Pressure groups hiss that they will seek impeachment of MPs who push for changes in the Charter.

Then the hardest problem to solve is the occupation of 4.6 square kilometres of land surrounding the Preah Vihear temple by Cambodian soldiers, monks and villagers. This is an embarrassing issue now that Phnom Penh is handing out concessions to foreign oil companies to engage in surveys and exploratory drilling in disputed maritime areas.

The government and armed forces have been lukewarm on this issue, insisting that the dispute should be dealt with through negotiation. So far there has been no progress after rounds of talks. The encroachment by Cambodia is blatant and will not stop there. There are other areas susceptible to Cambodian occupation by force.

These are just a few hard issues to test Abhisit's leadership and courage to deal with potential crises. A Bangkok University Poll shows that 51.5 per cent of those surveyed still want him to stay on as premier, while 43.5 per cent said he is not decisive. Such opinions are not surprising. People want him on the job, but not as a wimp.

His weakness, perceived and tested, has made hotshots within the Democrat Party show disrespect to his leadership, much to the frustration of his supporters. That's why the public wants him to do what he said in the US, particularly the intention to uphold what is right and negate what is wrong, despite his earlier compromise over the acceptance of coalition partners with credibility and image problems.

The content of his speeches in New York must be translated into real action so that he will not be accused of just talking about grand plans and ideas. Friends and foes are waiting to see him show decisiveness and achieve things. The nine months he seeks for the Charter changes is too long for the country to endure; it would be another period without meaningful achievement.

What's more, Abhisit is not a politician with nine lives to survive endless adversity, unlike Newin Chidchob, the king-maker with increasing clout and influence who could step into his shoes after he is no longer banned from active politics. Such a scenario would be dreadful indeed.

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