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JANUARY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 2

The Resilience Of 'Dinosaurs'
In Thailand old politicians take forever to fade away. Here's why

A master of patronage politics, Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasar is the Democrats' most important man after the prime minister Yvan Cohen for Asiaweek
Old politicians never die, they only fade away - very slowly. That is especially true in Thailand where, despite the flowering of savvy young politicians, it is the grizzly veterans who retain the reins of power. Indeed, the "dinosaurs," as they are dubbed by the Thai media, reasserted themselves during last month's parliamentary censure debate. In that five-day talkfest, which Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's government defeated, it was the old guard who dominated the proceedings. With Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasart, opposition leader Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, former premier Banharn Silapa-archa and Chavalit's hatchetman Chalerm Yubamrung hogging the headlines, it seemed like yesterday once more.

So is Thailand seeing a return of politicians supposedly consigned to extinction in the modern, good-governance climate engendered by the new Constitution two years ago? "The veterans still call the shots," says Kriengsak Chareonwongsak of Bangkok's Institute of Future Studies for Development. "In reality, they are the essence of power. The new generation is merely packaging to make things presentable to the public." But maintaining the "presentability" of some of the veterans is proving tough - especially for Chuan's Democrat Party, whose secretary-general Sanan is the archetypal dinosaur figure. This master of patronage politics is, after Chuan, the most important man in the party - though most Democrats would be loathe to admit it.

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Sanan, 64, has no degree, and performs woefully both in Parliament and his ministry. He has been implicated in a former coup attempt (and jailed for it), investigated for unexplained wealth, and most recently targeted for an alleged land scam. Notes former legislator Sudarat Keyuraphan: "Sanan is the old style." Even among the Democrats, few would dispute that assessment. "Sanan is not young and he doesn't have advanced thinking," acknowledges deputy party leader Arthit Ourairat. "But nobody is perfect."

So why do the Democrats, who portray themselves as torchbearers of transparent, meritocratic government, persist in letting their party be steered by Sanan? "He has such a strong power base in the party that they would be shaken without him," says Kriengsak. In fact, they would not be in power without him. In Nov. 1997, Sanan cobbled together a coalition right under the nose of the late former premier Chatichai Choonhavan, who naively thought he was going to get the top job again. Then, a year later, as ineptitude and corruption decimated Chuan's junior partners, Sanan finessed a pact with his counterpart, Suwat Liptapanlop, at Chatichai's former party and created an enlarged coalition. Sanan's great strength is his ability to cut deals and forge alliances.

That's why the old guard is invaluable. The Democrats know they still need figures like Sanan to stitch coalitions - and win elections. "Sanan, more than anyone else, controls the rural power base," says Thammasat University political scientist Somsak Jiamtheerasakul. "In Thailand, you still need this to win elections." Of course, all parties say they find this distasteful. Things are changing as younger politicians take up more senior posts, but it is a slow process. So for now, Sanan remains both the Democrats' biggest headache - and their main strategic asset for staying in power.

Banharn, leader of the Chart Thai Party, is another poor parliamentarian in Chuan's coalition but a great fixer. Soon after his party joined the government, Banharn told Asiaweek: "There is nothing wrong with patronage politics. If you don't do it you will not be elected." While he belongs in the same class as Sanan, the two are not on the best of terms. In the censure debate, Sanan was put on the spot when the opposition claimed he had attempted a crude blackmail maneuver to dissuade Banharn from pushing a police probe into Sanan's alleged land scam. Banharn, 67, was furious. The Democrats appeased him to ensure he stayed in the coalition. But whether he will remain after the elections (which must be called by November) is in doubt. Ultimately, the decision will be Banharn's. Like a true old-style boss, he runs his party with an iron fist and no member would dare cross him.

The opposition has its own share of old warriors, the most prominent being New Aspiration Party (NAP) leader Chavalit, 67. He was prime minister when the Crisis struck in 1997 and quit a few months later. Since then, he has been unable to shake the view that he was responsible for Thailand's economic mess. Yet like a true veteran, he has stoically clawed his way back. He led off last month's debate and promptly had Sanan on the defensive. "But that does not mean he can come back," says Chulalongkorn University's Suchit Bunbongkarn. "I think that the public still doesn't want him." Maybe, but Chavalit's party colleagues are predicting that they will win enough seats in the coming election to put their chief back in the top job.

In the feisty Chalerm, the NAP has the most charismatic orator in Thai politics. "Chalerm is the best speaker and has a way of getting information on people and hoarding it, then bringing it out when he attacks you," says Kriengsak. Indeed, while Chalerm's ranting and raging may upset Bangkok sophisticates, "the common folk like his style," notes academic Somsak. Chalerm, though only 51, has been an MP since 1983 and has held ministerial posts for over a decade. But don't tell him he's old style. He roars: "Only the columnists say that. I had the highest vote in Bangkok in my area. I have a Master of Law degree. How can a knowlegeable person like that be a dinosaur?"

Nothing if not pragmatic, the Democrats have lined up a like-minded streetfighter, Kovit Tarana, to run against Chalerm. Says Kovit: "I've known Chalerm for 20 years and I reckon I have a 50-50 chance of defeating him." Interestingly, it is the opposition NAP that is leading the push to replace the old-style bruisers with more articulate young blood. Early last year, Chavalit surprised many when he replaced his party's veteran secretary-general Sanoh Thienthong with the callow Chaturon Chaisang. No fixer, Chaturon is a good debater and soon began to torment Chuan's finance minister, Tarrin Nimmanhaeminda, in Parliament.

Dumping dinosaurs, however, is dangerous. First, they vent their anger in splitting from the party - as Sanoh apparently intends to do with the NAP. Second, their loss means no one to patch up votes and coalitions. Indeed, some of the more educated politicians even deliberately emulate the punchy and aggressive godfather style in order to capture the rural ground. Citing the Democrat Deputy Premier Trairong Suwankiri, Somsak says: "He has a Ph.D. in economics and used to teach at university, but after playing this kind of politics for a long time he began to talk like Chalerm. I often laugh at his style of talking now."

Chavalit is thus left with no fixer - aside from himself and Chalerm, neither of whom is in the same league as Sanan, Banharn and Sanoh. That is the price the NAP has had to pay for being reformist. By contrast, the Democrats, for all their show of being thoroughly modern and sophisticated, would not allow such noble sentiments to interfere with the raw business of winning elections. They see a major electoral threat from another old-style politician, Thaksin Shinawatra. It seems likely that Sanoh will team up with Thaksin, which would provide the former telecoms tycoon with the fixer he badly needs. "Even Thaksin, who loves to present himself as a new-generation politician, in the end still needs this kind of politician also," says academic Somsak.

While Thaksin does indeed try to pass himself off as new-era, knowledgeable observers are skeptical. "Thaksin epitomizes the old-style politician; he's an autocrat," notes a diplomat. "He invited a lot of people who gave ideas, but he personally vetoed them, so they left. Others are pushing the party not the man, this is a break from the past." For all that, Thaksin is doing remarkably well keeping his name in the headlines, despite his lack of a seat in Parliament. He may turn out to be the politician who successfully combines the characteristics of both the dinosaur and the new generation.

Eventually, onlookers agree, the diehard veterans will give way to younger pols in all the parties. Somsak says of the dinosaurs: "The new Constitution was more or less consciously drafted to limit their power and to get more people who are suitable for the new situation." The charter now requires ministers to declare their assets, and candidates for Parliament to have a university degree and no recent prison sentence. Adds Somsak: "We will see in the coming years the veterans' diminishing role." The process will take time, though. "Definitely these people will be coming back after the next election," says Chulalongkorn's Suchit. And they will continue to hold the real power in Thailand's politics. Agrees academic Kriengsak: "In the next election there will be more of the younger generation, but you cannot get rid of all these old faces. You have to live with them." They may be old politicians, but they are still very much alive.

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