Friday, 11 March 2011

An election won't solve Thailand's woes

via CAAI

Those in power need to address the population's grievances, such as the uneven distribution of wealth

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun
Updated 06:05 PM Mar 11, 2011

It is likely that Thailand will hold a general election in June, amid growing political uncertainties. For Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, like it or not, the election is inevitable since the term of his government will come to an end in December. To exhibit his sincerity in returning power to the voters, he recently announced that the election would take place within the first half of this year.

Indeed, Mr Abhisit has been enthusiastic about the upcoming election; too enthusiastic to the point of irritating his backers in the military. Since the military coup of 2006 that ousted the elected government of Thaksin Shinawatra, the military has continued to directly interfere in politics.

The fear of losing its political power, which would affect its power position, has driven the military to employ numerous tactics to delay the election - which allegedly include supporting the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) in attacking Mr Abhisit's seemingly "soft" policy vis-a-vis Cambodia, in the Preah Vihear Temple dispute.

But Mr Abhisit has remained upbeat and is confident that his Democrat Party will win the next election. I just returned from Bangkok last weekend; and while there, I felt as if an election campaign had already started even before a date to dissolve the Lower House has been set.

From Suvarnabhumi Airport to downtown Bangkok, large billboards are filled with election campaign posters - all belonging to the ruling Democrat Party. It seems like Bangkok residents still cannot get enough of the good-looking Prime Minister as Mr Abhisit's photos are everywhere.

On March 5, the Democrat Party released a policy statement and Mr Abhisit went to the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market to launch his "unofficial" election campaign. I was there to listen to his speech. It was clear that the economy ranked highest in his election campaign.

Mr Abhisit has promised his party will increase the minimum wage by 25 per cent in two years, at the maximum. He seems too determined to "buy" his way back into power. His critics see many similarities between Mr Abhisit's agendas and those of Thaksin in the old days. They have already criticised Mr Abhisit of stealing Thaksin's populist ideas. It is ironic that the Democrat Party, which once detested Thaksin's people-centric approach, is now adopting similar policy platforms.

Mr Abhisit declared loudly at Chatuchak: "We want the country to move ahead and the people to have a better quality of life." But a red-shirted member told me that he already had that quality of life under the Thaksin regime and it was taken away by Thaksin's opponents.

It appears that Mr Abhisit's impressive campaign might be able to draw support from his fans in Bangkok, but his Democrat Party remains hugely unpopular in the north and north-east regions of Thailand, which are the strongholds of Thaksin.


As for the opposition Puea Thai Party, some of its executive members have claimed that the party now has more "ammunition", or election funds of 5 billion baht (S$209,500 million), at its disposal compared to 4 billion baht in the previous election; and that with the money it would win the election "hands down" (Corrected at 05:54 PM Mar 11, 2011). They have never been more confident and are well prepared for an election.

It is not surprising if Thaksin, today, still serves as the main financial contributor to the Puea Thai Party. Although in recent months the former premier has seemed to keep a low profile, an inner source in the Puea Thai informed me that Thaksin has been busy laying out election strategies to compete with the Democrat Party. Late last year, a group of Puea Thai members travelled to Beijing to meet with Thaksin, apparently to receive instructions on how to carry out their election campaign.

In reality, the opposition Puea Thai Party still has many hurdles to overcome.

The party has been in disarray, with a lack of leadership and its close association with the red-shirted United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship which was believed to be involved in the political violence of April and May last year.

The disagreements among the top leaders on how to reposition the party in the future have been intensifying. Such internal conflicts could jeopardise its chances of triumphing in the upcoming election.

But Mr Abhisit cannot afford to become complacent with his place in the current political picture. There are at least two issues that could "make or break" the Democrat Party during this election campaign period.

First, his government will be facing a no-confidence motion over March 15 to 17. The Opposition has proposed a three-day censure debate to grill Mr Abhisit and nine cabinet members. Six of them are from the ruling Democrat Party while the rest are from the coalition Bhumjaithai Party.

The Puea Thai has planned to attack the government mainly on the use of military forces to disperse anti-government red-shirted protesters last year, in which 91 people were killed. The debate will also include the high prices of essential goods and corruption.

Second, Abhisit will also have to deal with the yellow-shirted PAD and its demand that his government get tough on the Preah Vihear Temple issue. The PAD has proven to be a potential legitimate threat to Mr Abhisit, especially in managing to stir up a sense of nationalism against Cambodia when in fact the party's real objective was to delegitimise Mr Abhisit's leadership.

Last week, Major-Geneneral Chamlong Srimuang, a PAD's core leader, reproached Mr Abhisit's plan for an early election. He felt that Thai politicians have been unable to solve the existing problems of vote-buying and corruption - an election would only perpetuate such illegal practices. Maj-Gen Chamlong has suggested instead "a temporary politics", an admittedly ill-defined concept that could mean the postponement of an election until a new political structure is put in place.

Maj-Gen Chamlong is right, but only partly. The election is not the answer to the current crisis in Thailand. But the problem here is not about vote-buying or corruption. It has to do with the fact that those in power have continued to avoid addressing the issue of political grievances, double standards, an unequal share of political power and uneven distribution of national wealth, felt by the majority of the Thai poor.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a fellow at Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

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