Sunday, December 31, 2006

Predictions from a pollster

Thai Takes

Who do Thais believe: the fortune-teller or the pollster?

“I don’t know. We need to do a survey on that,” said Noppadon Kannika, when quizzed on the subject.

His answer is typical of a man who makes a living taking and interpreting public opinion polls. Noppadon is the director of Abac Poll Research Centre at Bangkok’s Assumption University.

What he knows, without conducting a poll, is that a fortune-teller’s prediction is based on mystical power while a pollster’s is on data.

Noppadon’s forecast three days before the Sept 19 military coup was spot on. Leading Thai language newspaper Thai Rath quoted him as saying that there would be chaos such as a coup de tat if the then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra did not step down.

Six days before the end of 2006, I sat down with the utterly deadpan man to get his Thai takes on this year and the next.

What has been the most significant event in Thailand in 2006? I would say, and I believe my fellow Malaysians would agree, the smooth-as-Jim-Thompson-silk coup.

Not for Noppadon. His is the June celebrations for the Thai king’s 60th year on the throne. Abac survey found 92% of Thais were happy during that month despite political impasse (anti-Thaksin demonstrations) and economic crisis (rising petrol prices) wracking their country.

In June, the people’s reverence for the king made them forget their problems.

“They perceived the king doing everything for the people. For example, many royal projects have touched their lives,” Noppadon explained.

The Thais’ happiness level for that commemorative month was the highest in 2006. However, their exhilaration was shortlived. The next month, reality rumbled back into their minds.

The silky coup, according to the 40-year-old pollster, was the second most significant event.

A month after the military grab for power, Abac Poll released a survey that Prime Minister Gen Surayud Chulanont’s administration enjoyed a better image than the Thaksin government. Thais, however, were unhappy as the interim government was acting too slowly on people’s problems and allegations of Thaksin’s corruption.

For 2007, Noppadon predicts the unfolding of a situation that will not be good for the nation.

“We will have a strong people’s movement organised by the previous government around March. But it will lose momentum the following month as it will be the festive month of Songkran (Thai New Year),” he noted.

However, the mobilisation of the masses against the interim government will pick up again in May, which is an idle month for most Thais who take a break from farming.

Noppadon said his prediction of the people’s movement was dependent on two factors – King Bhumibol Adulyadej, whom many Thais regard as semi-divine, and the performance of the Surayud administration.

“Most Thais will not go against the king’s wishes,” he explained.

The deep south?

“The southern Thailand situation will continue,” predicted Noppadon. “No one can solve it absolutely as we don’t have a good system to solve the problem.

Will the coup makers deliver an election next year?

“No, the year after next. The new constitution will not be ready (until late 2007),” he said. “Looks like the coup makers’ promise to leave after one year will not materialise.”

Will the exiled Thaksin launch a political comeback?

The billionaire who, based on an Abac Poll, still commands 20% to 25% support from Thais, has two options.

“The Chiang Mai-based politician can utilise his financial might and political influence, especially from the country’s north-east to force a return to power,” said Noppadon.

“Or, Thaksin can negotiate with the coup makers to settle his family’s slew of corruption charges. And then he will make a comeback when there is a new constitution and conducive political climate.”

In terms of gross domestic happiness, Thais can look forward to the year-long celebration of King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on Dec 5.

“That will be the beautiful scenario for next year,” Noppadon noted.

However, the pollster also worries that ugly political turmoil lurks in 2007.

(Published in The Star on Dec 31, 2006)