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)