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)