Saturday, December 29, 2007

Haggling to form government has begun


WHO is bluffing? People Power Party (PPP) secretary-general Surapong Suebwonglee who said three parties have agreed to join the pro-Thaksin Shinawatra party in forming a coalition government or Democrat Party secretary-general Suthep Thaugsuban who says he does not believe the PPP has already recruited several allies to form a government.

Worapol Promigabutr, Thammasat University associate professor of sociology and anthropology, believes Suthep is the one bluffing.

“People like Surapong would not call a bluff in public. His statement is real,” said the 50-year-old sociologist, adding “in Thai politics, Suthep is known to bluff”.

In post-election Thailand, bluffing is the name of the game as the two main political parties – PPP (with 233 MPs in the 480-seat parliament) and Democrat Party (165) – woo Chart Thai Party (37), Puea Pandin (24), Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana (nine), Matchima Thipataya (seven) and Prachaj (five) to a multi-partner marriage.

So far, depending on who is not bluffing, the three smaller parties – Ruam Jai Thai Chart Pattana, Matchima Thipataya and Prachaj – have accepted the PPP’s proposal.

However, there are several potential landmines ahead of the Samak Sundaravej-led PPP as his party steps to the altar.

Will the junta, who ousted Thaksin 15 months ago, intervene? How many PPP MP-elect will the Election Commission (EC) disqualify? Will there be chaos in the form of massive anti-Thaksin rallies against the birth of a PPP-led coalition government?

These questions are valid to Worapol.

There is a faction in the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) that is itching to launch another mass movement against Thaksin. Behind the scenes, there are powerful people who are lobbying the EC to drastically reduce the number of seats the PPP won. There are elements in the military that are uneasy with the election result.

But the academician contends that there is a consensus among non-political powers such as the military, business circle and NGOs to allow the PPP to form the next coalition government.

“This current equation (233 seats) will give the PPP the government. But also crucial is consensus from these groups,” he explained.

The military is on neutral gear as it is divided into two factions – the coup leaders and commanders who have evaluated the situation and have decided to remain impartial.

“Two days after the election results were announced, we have not observed any extraordinary movement from the army,” said Worapol.

Most factions in the Thai business circle will not oppose a PPP-led coalition government although some businessmen had convinced the army to launch last year’s Sept 19 coup.

“After 15 months of a military-installed government, the private sector has come to a conclusion that coup leaders such as General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin have limited experience in a globalised world,” said the sociologist.

As for the predicted post-election chaos, there was none as anti-Thaksin groups were unable to mobilise their supporters. The financial support from the business circle is not flowing into these groups.

As for the pre-election concerns that the PPP will be banned, Worapol said that scenario is “now near impossible to happen”.

“The EC has announced that in general the election has been free and fair,” he said, adding “the announcement signals that there is some kind of agreement behind the scenes”.

The academician does not see any drastic disqualification of PPP candidates. So far the EC has announced three “yellow cards” to disqualify three of the party’s MP-elects in Nakhon Ratchasima allegedly for vote buying.

“They will win the seats again,” he predicts, “as their seats are located in the Thaksin heartland in the northeast.”

(According to EC regulations, elected candidates given yellow cards could re-contest in a by-election scheduled on Jan 13.)

On Jan 4, a day after the EC finalises its investigations on electoral fraud, the PPP will provide details on its coalition government. And Worapol won’t be surprised if the coalition government included Chart Thai Party or Puea Pandin.

Nevertheless, the academician said that it was too early to conclude that the Democrat Party will be the sole opposition party.

Certain powerful elements will want either Chart Thai Party or Puea Pandin to join the Democrat Party to balance the power of a PPP-led coalition government.

(Published in The Star on Dec 29, 2007)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Chaos before calm can reign

Thai Takes

TOMORROW, Worapol Promigabutr, a 50-year-old Thai academician, will mark an “X” against the number 12, the party list ballot paper for Zone 6.

Twelve is the number drawn by Samak Sundaravej, the leader of the People Power Party (PPP), on Nov 14 during the lot drawings for party-list candidacy.

With the ‘X’ against 12, Warapol is voting for the PPP in the zone consisting of Bangkok, Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan.

For the constituency seat, he can vote for three MPs to represent him in Bangkok constituency 1 (or is it constituency 2? It is all too confusing for him with the recent realignment of constituencies). “I don’t remember their number or name but I will vote for anyone with the PPP,” declares the associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Bangkok’s Thammasat University.

To Worapol, it is not who he will vote for but what he is voting against that is more important. He is backing the PPP, which has promised to bring back self-exiled Thaksin Shinawatra, because he opposes the coup that ousted the former prime minister on Sept 19 last year.

“I have to tell myself again that I believe in democracy and not in coups. We cannot allow a small number of people to steal sovereignty from the people through the barrel of a gun,” he declares.

His decision, he clarifies, is not based on a personal bias against any political leader.

“Personally, I know many people in almost every political party. For example, Abhisit (Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party) and I have worked together previously.”

The Democrat Party will not get his vote because he believes a clique within the party is linked to the coup makers.

How will Thais vote tomorrow? There are about 45 million eligible voters.

Most of the votes in the country’s north and northeast regions will go to the PPP, which is a pro-Thaksin party.

“The people from these two regions are poor by Bangkok standards. And they are impressed with the Thai Rak Thai (Thaksin’s disbanded party and the predecessor of the PPP) because in the party’s five years in power its policies have helped them,” explains the academician.

In Bangkok, Worapol believes the Democrats will not win as many seats as it expects. Some sections of the middle class, he observes, have grown unhappy over the coup as, on a micro level, the Thai economy is not as good as what the military-installed interim government is propagating.

“Many are saying that if they do get a one-month bonus, they would still be happy. They are trying to downplay their expectations. These middle class voters will be in a confused state on Sunday,” he says, adding that most of the Thai capital’s working class are partial to the PPP.

The south will remain the Democrat Party’s stronghold. “Through the process of socialisation, southerners will not vote for another party,” explains the sociologist.

Worapol predicts the PPP to win most of the 480 seats up for grabs – 400 MPs to represent Thailand’s 76 provinces and 80 party-list MPs).

But whether the PPP will form the next government will depend on the expected horse-trading between political parties in what is seen as an inconclusive polls. And there are many likely scenarios.

“Any party that can get Banharn Silpa-archa (the leader of Chart Thai Party) can be in a secure position for at least a year. But Banharn will ask for more and more,” he figures.

Worapol isn’t sure why Abhisit is so confident his party will team up with Banharn’s Chart Thai Party to form the next government. “Abhisit’s terms (that he becomes prime minister) will not be to Banharn’s interest,” he notes.

The possibility of a coup in case the PPP forms the next government is slim, according to Worapol. “Right now there are different factions within the military. The clique of coup makers has gotten smaller and less powerful,” he says.

However, the academician thinks that before the prime minister is named in parliament, chaos will rein.

Whatever the outcome, Worapol hopes future coup makers will learn that they cannot move Thailand back to the Cold War era.

(Published in The Star on Dec 22, 2007)

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Banker fights vote buying


THE luxurious jet-black SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle) looked out of place in Klong Toey, Bangkok’s biggest slum. So did its occupant Korn Chatikavanij, the former head of JP Morgan Securities (Thailand).

But Korn is a familiar face as his campaign posters are all over the slum. And as the chief architect of the Democrat Party’s economic policies, the 43-year-old politician is a regular feature in the Thai media.

Asked why a former investment banker was contesting in a slum area, he explained that the new constitution lumped Klong Toey and some other districts into his original constituency, which included Sathorn, Bangkok’s financial district.

Korn acknowledges that his background as a financial wizard may not attract the voters of Klong Toey (which represents one-fifth of the constituency seat he is contesting), as it is Bangkok’s “dirtiest” district.

“The bulk of its population are slum dwellers, who are susceptible to buying and selling of votes,” said the Democrat Party deputy secretary general, who quit JP Morgan in October 2004 to run and win Bangkok Constituency 7 (Yannawa-Sathorn) in the February 2005 Thai polls.

Nevertheless, he is hoping the voters will find his long-term economic vision to improve the slum more enticing than short-term monetary inducement.

Even if his opponents succeeded in buying votes in Klong Toey, Korn is confident of winning Bangkok Constituency 2 (Yannawa-Sathorn-Bang Kor Laem-Klong Toey and Wattana) seat as “clean votes” from the other four districts would dilute “bought votes.”

Vote buying, according to Korn, has become more sophisticated, compared with the old days where cash was dished out the night before the polls.

Now they do it in all kinds of ways, he notes.

“For example, in the slum communities there is a lot of unofficial money lending, as the people don’t have sufficient credit worthiness to access loans through the formal financial system,” he explained.

“So loan sharks typically become canvassers for political parties.

“And all they need to do is waive a month's interest so no cash changes hand (making the transaction untraceable).”

The canvassers can find out whether “bought votes” have been delivered as ballot counting is conducted at individual polling station (representing about 700 voters).

Asked whether the Democrat Party engages in vote buying, the straight talking Korn responded with an emphatic no.

“I should caveat that by saying we make it clear that if we or the election commission find evidence of vote buying by our candidates, they will not have any support from us.”

Asked on the difference between campaigning in 2005 when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was in power and now with Thaksin in self-exile after last year’s Sept 19 coup, Korn said there was not much difference as the People Power Party (PPP is the re-incarnation of Thaksin’s disbanded Thai Rak Thai) has succeeded in keeping Thaksin’s name in the forefront and Samak Sundaravej's (PPP leader) on the radar screen.

“If it were a choice of between Abhisit Vejjajiva (Democrat Party leader) and Samak for prime minister, we would win hands down. But for most Bangkokians and northeasterners the issue is still Abhisit versus Thaksin, which is a harder fight,” he explains.

Reminded that he was tipped to be the next finance minister, and asked if he was excited about the prospect, Korn replied: “Not really, to be honest.”

And then he quickly added: ‘If the party does get to form the next government, and I am entrusted with (the post) .... those are two big ifs.

“There is really no honeymoon period for Thailand,” he continued.

“We have a lot to do. We need to win back the confidence of international and domestic investors and the business community.

“And that means sending the right signals over issues which have caused confusion.

“For example, the move towards capital control by the Bank of Thailand and the move towards amendment of the alien business law by the current government. We think neither benefited the Thai economy.”

If the Democrat Party forms the next coalition government, some Thais are salivating at the prospect of Thailand being led by the dream team of Korn and 43-year-old Abhisit, who is his childhood friend and Oxford classmate.

Abhisit and Korn – the party’s “new generation” - will not look out of place among world leaders.

(Published in The Star on Dec 15, 2007)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Stumbling to the polls

THIS week Thai newspaper cartoonists had a field day lampooning Prachai Leophairatana, who is bumbling in the race to be Thailand’s next prime minister.

On Wednesday, a Bangkok Post editorial cartoon showed a man resembling Prachai tumbling over a hurdle (marked “share price manipulation”) that was in front of another hurdle (marked “Dec 23 Election”).

On Thursday, The Nation’s Stephff drew Prachai stumbling inside a giant shoeprint with the caption: “Following in Thaksin’s Footsteps (with less political talent)”.

It was indeed a humbling week for the petrochemical tycoon.

On Monday, the Criminal Court sentenced the founder of TPI Polene to three years in jail after finding him guilty of stock manipulation.

Nevertheless, his fleeting political career was not in jeopardy as he could still contest the polls pending appeal.

The following day, Prachai dropped a bombshell. He announced his resignation as the leader of Matchima Thipataya Party (Middle Path Party), his withdrawal as a candidate in the Dec 23 Thai polls and his retirement from politics.

However, Prachai, who is on bail, made a U-turn hours after the announcement. In a second press conference, he announced that he would reconsider his decision.

And on Thursday, the 64-year-old novice politician announced that he would lead Matchima Thipataya, a minor political party, in the forthcoming elections.

“All party members have given their moral support to my leadership, hence I will continue to serve them,” he told the media.

Why the flip-flop?

“Yes, he resigned on Tuesday. But many people did not want him to resign,” explains Narong Piriya-anek, a Matchima Thipataya Party spokesperson, in a phone interview on Thursday.

“If he did not remain as party leader, many of our candidates contesting in the elections would lose.

“If he resigns, millions of posters and leaflets with Prachai’s photograph would have to come down and we don’t have time to adjust (to print alternative posters and leaflets) as we only have 18 days before the elections.”

Narong also revealed that Prachai changed his mind because “he is the only party leader who can bring prosperity to Thailand”.

But how about his resignation on Tuesday?

Narong the spin-doctor explained that Prachai made the decision because he did not want to “hurt the party”, and adding: “Not many leaders would dare make such a bold decision (to resign).”

Prachai, who is Thailand’s biggest corporate debt defaulter (in excess of 150 billion baht or RM16bil) during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, is a newcomer to politics.

When the businessman decided to cut his teeth in politics in September, the Thai media compared him to his archenemy Thaksin Shinawatra.

“Both Thaksin and Prachai had made personal fortunes as business tycoons and were not averse to spending huge amounts of money to create new political parties to serve as their vehicles to high political office,” The Nation editorialised on Wednesday.

“They did so by the use of patronage and the power of the purse string to lure incumbent MPs or veteran politicians that stand a good chance of winning in elections into their new parties – which became political forces overnight.”

But that is where the similarities end. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party won a landslide in the 2001 elections, making him prime minister in his first attempt. Prachai, however, is leading a party with the potential to implode anytime.

Last week, for example, Prachai threatened to dissolve the party, which he took over on Nov 11, instead of paying 60 million baht (RM6.6 million) he claimed was being extorted from him in exchange of updating Matchima Thipataya’s records to reflect leadership change.

The extortion claim was one of the many troubles afflicting Prachai who was described as “just a kindergarten student in politics” by his former political bedfellow Snoh Thienthong (the leader of Pracharaj, a minor political party).

Is Prachai politically naive? “He is not a politician. He is a businessman who doesn’t understand the behaviour of Thai politicians, who are very difficult to deal with,” explains Narong.

Asked whether the fumbling politician had a chance of winning an MP's seat, Narong said: “One hundred per cent.”

However, especially since his conviction, Prachai’s prospect of becoming an MP is fast crumbling.

(Published in The Star on Dec 8, 2007)

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Bangkok turns yellow to honour the unifying force


ON THE morning of June 9, 1946, Rama VIII was found dead with a single gunshot to the forehead. With the mysterious death of 20-year-old King Ananda, his 18-year-old brother ascended the Chakri throne to become Rama IX.

Rama IX was born on Dec 5, 1927, in Boston, Massachusetts, making him the only king ever to be born in the United States. He was named Bhumibol Adulyadej, which means ‘Strength of the Land, Incomparable Power’, by his uncle, Rama VII (King Prajadhipok).

King Prajadhipok was the half brother of Bhumibol’s father, Prince Mahidol, who was the 69th son of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V).

Starting today, most Thais will be adorned in yellow (the colour which symbolises Monday, the day he was born) to celebrate King Bhumibol’s 80th birthday on Wednesday.

The king, who is the world’s longest-reigning monarch, is a revered figure in Thailand.
Proof of his subjects’ veneration is in the photographs of King Bhumibol put up at almost all homes in the kingdom.

On a recent trip to an Akha (a hilltribe) village in Chiang Rai, which borders Myanmar and Laos, it was amazing to see snapshots of King Bhumibol snipped from newspapers and magazines adorning the walls of the bamboo huts.

Amazing, as the villagers were granted Thai citizenship only in the last few years, after a stateless existence in the golden triangle (an area encompassing Myanmar, Laos and Thailand, which used to be the world’s largest producer of opium).

“He is my king,” Ake Chume, a 50-year-old Akha man, declared when I asked about the photographs. Playing the devil’s advocate, I asked: “But what has he done for you?”

“My king’s royal project has helped me,” he explained.

It is easy to speak to rural folks like Ake about their adoration for their king.

But when it comes to some Bangkokians, the royal subject turns into a hushed whisper of coded conversation.

Take the example of my chat with an American-educated 20-something Thai who insisted we used a “nickname” to refer to her king as she was afraid the breakfast crowd in the trendy Sukhumvit cafe would know who we were whispering about.

Even Thai academics are hesitant to discuss their king in public.

For instance, at Bangkok’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT), Thongchai Winichakul, who is the most feted modern Thai historian, spoke intriguingly about how Prince Vajiravudh (Rama VI) succeeded his father, King Chulalongkorn.

The US-based historian, however, politely told the audience that he would not discuss the hottest topic revolving the current monarchy – the succession.

“We are in the penthouse of the FCCT but we are still on Thai soil,” he said on the night of Nov 20. Later he explained that lese majeste (a French expression which means ‘insulting the monarchy’) hung over the head of academics and journalists who were critical of the royal family.

Nevertheless, Thongchai, a former student leader who was detained for two years after the bloody Oct 6, 1976, military crackdown on students, acknowledged that there were Thai thinkers such as Sulak Sivarak who have not filtered their views on the monarchy.

A few days before last year’s Sept 19 coup, I had a filtered conversation with a respected Thai historian who I was meeting for the first time. Amazed that the Thai capital turned yellow on Mondays, I asked him why Thais adored King Bhumibol.

In polarised Thailand, he explained, the king is a unifying force. Using history, he gave an example on how the king unified his kingdom during one of its most polarised periods.

On May 18, 1992, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, a coup leader who had just appointed himself prime minister, ordered his men to shoot at demonstrators led by opposition politician Chamlong Srimuang, killing and injuring hundreds.

Two days later, as Thailand descended into chaos, a 9.30pm television broadcast showed Suchinda and Chamlong kneeling in front of King Bhumibol who scolded the two. Within hours of the royal scolding, the soldiers returned to their barracks, and the demonstrators to their homes.

This vision, the academic noted, bolstered the image of the King Bhumibol, who at the last count has reigned over 17 Thai constitutions, 18 coups and 24 prime ministers.

(Published in The Star on Dec 1, 2007)