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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

AsiaweekTimeAsia NowAsiaweek story

JANUARY 28, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 3

Of Brothers and Ballots
How the political dynasties still flourish
By ROGER MITTON Bangkok

We are fam-i-ly. Sister Sledge should have dedicated the song to Thai politicians. Most have a relative who was, is or plans to get elected. Nothing new, you say. Yes, but it's getting no better - despite the fancy new Constitution. The phenomenon transcends party lines, regions, affiliations, gender, age - and prevents fresh blood from flushing through the kingdom's sclerotic political system. Moreover, it makes a mockery of attempts to promote meritocracy.

Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's coalition government and party are full of blood relatives and in-laws. Interior Minister Sanan Kachornprasert, and the chief fixer of Chuan's Democrats, plans to bequeath his seat to son Siriwat at elections later this year. Not that dad will fade away. He will run on the proportional representation party list and be returned as a minister - assuming the Democrat-led coalition retains power. Oh yes, and Sanan will field his wife in Senate elections on Mar. 4.

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He could still learn plenty from former PMBanharn Silapa-archa, whose Chart Thai party is a coalition partner. After a family feud led him to sacrifice his brother Chumpol as education minister in 1998, Banharn ran the portfolio through a proxy. Then he arranged for his MP daughter Kanchana to get the deputy slot. She is being groomed for full ministership. Banharn's son, Warawuth, is to take over Chumpol's parliamentary seat.

Nepotism is rife in the opposition, too. Two generations of the powerful Chaisang family will run under the New Aspiration Party banner. Former party fixer Sanoh Thienthong will back his wife for the Senate; his niece will run for Parliament - and so will he, of course. The lovable NAP loudmouth Chalerm Yubamrung plans to field a pair of sons. "It's about love, a love of democracy," he bellows. "The Kennedy family did it also." Except that in the U.S. and other places, family politics is usually less rampant. "We try to steer away from it," says Democrat minister Arthit Ourairat. "But we have to accept it's a fact of life all over the country."

As academic Kriengsak Chareonwongsak says: "It's very convenient to inherit a dynasty. Everything is laid on a golden platter." No one pays much attention to the nepotism in Thai politics, until someone's sibling makes a boo-boo. Earlier this month, a relative of Deputy Agriculture Minister Newin Chidchob was implicated in the shooting of a Democrat MP. Newin denies involvement and (backed by Chuan) refuses to quit. But the debacle reminded everyone that Newin's family has a lock on northeastern Buriram, where he, his father and wife are MPs - and where his sister will run for the Senate.

Political scions often start young. Government spokesman Akapol Sorasuchart got involved in politics when, at 16, he helped his MP father campaign for the Democrats. "I decided, when I'm ready, I would like to join politics." Akapol never looked back and now hopes to get his wife elected.

A family connection is a near guarantee of winning public office - though not always and not to a top post. Sometimes trying to give a relative a leg-up backfires. "My father is an ex-deputy minister," says NAP Secretary-General Chaturon Chaisang. "We ran in an election together. He lost and I got elected. That's because he tried to help me too much." Cabinet reshuffles still reflect family values. Banharn's daughter Kanchana was promoted ahead of senior party figures. Chuan has to let it happen - or watch his coalition disintegrate.

Not that all family promotions are unjustified. "With the new one-man, one-vote single-member seats, you need familiarity with the constituency," says a Democrat contender: "Formerly, in the three-member seats, two heavyweights could carry the third person. But now you are on your own, so you need a strong background in politics and that's why it's appropriate for sons, daughters and wives to run."

The problem is that it makes it tough for an outsider with no relatives in the game to enter Thai politics. "It's almost like a huge barrier," says Kriengsak. "Who can cross over if you don't have the right mix?" The situation is only made worse because party fealty is so flagrantly and frequently scorned by Thai politicians. Says academic Ji Ungpakorn: "Political parties are very unstable and the only people you can really trust are your relatives. If you want to increase your influence, one way is to increase your relatives in Parliament because you can never be sure of your fellow party members."

Hence the inclination to encourage the family to join in. By the way, Chuan's sibling, Kij Leekpai, has just put his name down to run for provincial councillor in the prime minister's southern bastion of Trang. Oh, brother.

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