Saturday, June 27, 2009

Absent Thaksin strikes polls blow to ruling coalition

Thai Takes

LAST Sunday, Thais in a province about 647km north-east of Bangkok voted in a by-election. And what boomed out of the ballot boxes is that Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled former Thai Prime Minister, is back, politically.

The opposition Puea Thai Party, which is loyal to Thaksin, thumped Bhum Jai Thai Party, a member of the ruling coalition, by 83,348 votes to 47,235 in the Sakon Nakhon by-election that was called after a Supreme Court ruling disqualified the incumbent Puea Thai MP.

The by-election result is a nightmare for the Democrat-led coalition government and the power behind the government, noted Pitch Pongsawat, who teaches political science in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“It shows that post-Thaksin politics is still very contingent. I’m not saying that Thaksin has an (absolute) influence on the people,” he opined.

“But it is a nightmare because Thaksin – when he really works on something – is able to get the support of the people.”

The Sakon Nakhon by-election was supposed to be a shoo-in for Bhum Jai Thai Party.

“Bhum Jai Thai appeared to have the advantage in that the party controls local officials who include the tambon (Thai for “subdistrict”) and village headmen through its control of the Interior Ministry,” Veera Prateepchaikul wrote in the Bangkok Post on Monday.

While Bhun Jai Thai has control of the interior ministry, Puea Thai Party has Thaksin, the darling of Thailand’s northeasterners who had benefited from his populist policies when he was in power from 2001 to 2006.

Self-exiled (probably in Dubai), the billionaire politician personally telephoned tambon and village headmen, pleading with them to support his party.

“Thaksin used his charismatic asset (to win over the voters),” said Pitch.

A big message from the by-election, according to the political lecturer, is that the people voted for the opposition.

“In Thailand, we are made to believe that you better vote for the government if you want (your constituency) to receive government projects,” he explains. “So it is a big deal when the people voted for the opposition.

“The voters had enough guts to vote for the opposition because they felt that the Red Shirts and the Isaan people (northeasterners) were unfairly treated during the Bangkok protests in April.”

The Sakon Nakhon by-election was also seen as a Thaksin vs Newin Chidchob fight.

Newin? He is a Thaksin loyalist who betrayed his boss. Newin and about two dozen MPs from People’s Power Party (PPP, the dissolved ruling party which is the predecessor of Puea Thai Party) formed Bhum Jai Thai Party to enable Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat leader, to put together a seven-party coalition government in December last year.

Puea Thai Party distributed leaflets with photographs of Newin hugging Thaksin (taken three years ago when the then prime minister Thaksin announced he was taking a temporary break from politics) as well as Newin hugging Abhisit (taken in December 2008 when they embraced to show that Newin supported Abhisit’s push to be prime minister).

The leaflets carried the headline: “Sakon Nakhon residents: Oppose this disgraceful man (Newin).”

Pitch noted: “This is another version of moral politics in Thailand – the voters gave Newin a lesson – you can’t be disloyal to your patron.”

The Sakon Nakhon result also put a speed bump on Newin’s ambition to replace Thaksin as a major force in the northeast and north of Thailand.

On Tuesday, The Nation wrote: “This result might put a smile on Abhisit’s face, because even though Newin helped him form the government, he and his Bhum Jai Thai have been clashing with the Democrats over some government projects.

“Maybe this time Newin will be less aggressive and tone down his power-bargaining tactics and ambition.”

Pitch thinks otherwise. “I don’t think they want Bhum Jai Thai to lose as when its coalition partner loses, the Democrat Party also loses,” he said, adding that the Democrats hope Newin will extinguish Thaksin’s influence in the northeast.

Now all eyes are on tomorrow’s by-election in Si Sa Ket, a northeast province along the disputed Thai/Cambodian border.

The fight this time is between Puea Thai Party and Chart Thai Pattana Party, a member of the Democrat-led ruling coalition.

Who will win?

“It depends on the Thaksin factor – whether he personally calls the voters,” says Pitch. “And that’s going to be a big challenge to the (political foundation of the coalition government).”

(Published in The Star on June 27, 2009)