For the Love of Thais

A record-breaking election on Jan. 6, in more ways than one, has entrusted the country in the hands of one party, the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais). Even before the vote count was over, Thai Rak Thai had won 256 out of 500 seats.

The first election under the new constitution was indeed a pitched battle of hearts and minds that pitted old politics against new, and small money against big money. Despite a slew of frauds and irregularities, the election was praised by most analysts, including the election watchdog group Asian Network for Free Elections, for its high voter turnout and improved electoral system. Indeed, political reform in Thailand has made progress.

Bangkok’s center-left independent Matichon daily (Jan. 12) credited Thai Rak Thai’s victory to the party’s savvy campaign strategy. The party’s pledges to provide 1 million baht each (US $23,000) to 70,000 villages, a three-year debt moratorium for farmers, and a 30-baht (70-cent) medical visit for every citizen across the board not only won the = voters’ hearts, but became the crux of its campaign. These clearly drawn promises were a welcome departure from the past, when personal charisma and local patronage dominated elections.

But after the poll, public fears arose over whether or not the government would overspend the country’s tight budget and mishandle its debts.

The concern was echoed in Bangkok’s center-right Thai Post (Jan. 15) with the head line “Thais Cheat Thais.” The editorial opined that the new government under the telecom tycoon party leader, Prime Minister-elect Thaksin Shinawatra, might not be able to fulfill its populist pledges, as the party is unable to find a suitable person to handle its finance portfolio.

In its Jan. 15-21 issue, the independent Nation Sudsapda Weekly of Bangkok commented that the winning party has to prove its mettle by carrying out these policies no matter what the cost: “[Thai Rak Thai] has to show that the two-year-old fledgling party is not an ad-hoc political party with big money politics, as many critics charged. The stakes are high because the party has the absolute majority and is hence responsible for forming the government and implementing its unchecked policies.”

The election has also brought forth a new generation of politicians. Bangkok’s center-left business daily Krungthep Turakij pointed out in a Jan. 12 report that more than three dozen veteran politicians were not elected and at least 150 first-time candidates were. The Thai Rak Thai party alone elected 22 women, which puts more women than ever in parliament.

New elections will be organized in 36 localities, because 60 candidates (40 from the winning party) were found guilty of fraud and irregularities by the Election Commission. Thaksin is due to testify before the Constitutional Court to contest the National Counter-Corruption Commission’s indictment charging that he attempted to conceal his assets when he reported his financial status after his brief stint as deputy prime minister in 1997. If the indictment is upheld, Thaksin will be barred from holding political office for five years.