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November 30, 2000

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MARCH 17, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 10

Promise Of The Polls
Thailand votes in a new Senate full of tainted riff-raff - and a hardy core of real reformists

The more things stay the same, the more they change. So it proved in last week's Senate elections in Thailand. The old venalities that besmirched past elections were still evident: vote-buying, patronage, vested-interest candidates from the military and the underworld. There was an almost comic ignorance by many citizens about who they were voting for. Yet despite all this, there was profound change. The venalities were less glaring, the voter turnout increased, and a surprising number of candidates with track records of working for the betterment of society were elected. "The results were better than expected," says Supavud Saicheua, vice-president of Merrill Lynch Phatra Securities in Bang-kok. "I thought there would be a lot more incidents of vote-buying and irregularities, but it looks like the bulk of the elections were relatively clean."

The March 4 polls were the first under Thailand's new "good governance" Con-stitution passed in 1997. The resulting crop of 200 elected senators, who replace the former appointees, wield great-er powers to check and balance government actions. Evidently taking this into account, citizens took the opportunity to elect a solid core of - for want of a better term - busybodies, who will be able to vet future policies and appointments more ro-bustly. Says the head of Bangkok's Institute of Future Studies for Dev-elopment, Kriengsak Charoenwongsak: "It shows the people's frustration and how they are tired of the old type of corrupt politics."

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While the tally proved encouraging for those who want to clean up Thai politics and improve society, it could complicate that task by investing so many diverse voices with influence. The government's economic restructuring policies already face stiff political and public opposition. And the result could make life difficult for Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, even though his Democrat Party is the natural beneficiary of reformist sentiment. He has to deal with the Senate as it gets used to its new role, and he may be pressured to dissolve the powerful lower house, which was chosen under the old constitution, before he is ready. But the new Senate is also grounds for hope. "This will be a very vocal bunch of senators," says Supavud of the activists and gadflies who won seats. "They won't let things go easily. They will give future governments a hard time."

Elected for a six-year term, the Se-nate's new boys (and they are mostly male) should be savvier, cleaner and harder-working than their predecessors. The new Constitution requires them to have a university degree. To minimize conflict of interest, they cannot be members of any political party. And they will lose their seats if they are absent from too many sittings or if they are convicted of criminal offenses. The senators will vet bills, control appointments to the anti-corruption commission, and can sack senior malfeasant figures like ministers, judges and MPs. So these new guys have clout - hence the ap-prehension as people watched the vote count.

The result brought guarded relief. "It's satisfactory in terms of the high voter turnout and the relatively good quality of people elected, particularly in Bangkok," says political scientist Suchit Bunbongkarn of Chula-longkorn University. Among the capital's 18 new senators is a core group of community activists and whistleblowers who will be bolstered by a few like-minded figures from the provinces, such as human rights lawyer and Magasaysay award winner Thongbai Thongpao of Maha Sarakham province. Their wins partly dispelled fears that, due to a ban on campaigning, citizens would be unaware of who they were voting for or would only pick well-known former politicians - and those willing to pay.

The top vote getter was Pramote Maiklad, a former bureaucrat who had often accompanied King Bhumibol Adul-yadej when the monarch inspected rural projects. The royal association helped Pra-mote; so too did the fact that he had fought against the influence of nepotistic politicians at his agriculture ministry. As a result, he was forced to quit. The voters ap-parently remembered that. Says Weerasak Kowsurat, an adviser with the Chart Thai Party, a member of the ruling coalition: "The silent majority has shown that it does read the news and does do calculations about candidates." The higher than 70% turnout was not only due to citizens seeking to elect feisty whistleblowers. New compulsory voting rules helped. And the bad old habits - thankfully reduced - were viewed pragmatically by seasoned election observers. Says Suchit: "You cannot help some fraud and vote-buying; it's impossible to eliminate it all overnight."

Still, the old power structure had the edge. About 38% of the likely new senators are former politicians or relatives of politicians. (The Election Commission had yet to announce the final results at press time as it investigates reports of cheating.) Another 34% are ex-bureaucrats; 15% are businessmen; and the rest are former military men, leaders of non-governmental or-ganizations, academics, media figures and others professionals. The majority of vested-interest rogues were elected in the provinces, where abuses were widespread. "Upcountry you can see that the politically organized votes win," says Kriengsak. "The political parties are really trying to make sure that the Senate will not upset them too much. Sending in their own people is a way to stop that." This despite the fact that all parties vowed fealty to the rule that candidates have no party affiliation. "You have relatives, spouses, brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law of politicians, and you have the wives of two [cabinet] ministers," says Likhit Dhiravegin of the opposition New Aspiration Party (NAP). "It is a conflict of interest and a minus for the election." And an embarrassment for the PM.

But the political taint does allow the Senate poll to serve as a harbinger for upcoming general elections, which Chuan must call by Nov. 17. According to some pundits, the premier can take heart from the Bangkok results because the voters who elected all those social activists are also likely to vote for his party. But in fact, only one of the capital's 18 victorious senators is an outright Democrat. Says oppositionist Likhit: "The Demo-crats did not fare well in Bangkok, and surprisingly they didn't do very well in certain provinces in the south either." So Chuan may want to delay the vote. But there may be pressure from the opposite direction. "The Senate result presents problems for Chuan in that since it went well, people will say: 'Well, why don't we have the full election now, so that we can get good people into the lower house as well?'" says Supavud.

The picture is mixed for Chuan's opponents. Likhit's NAP, the main opposition party, held up its strength in the populous northeast and so is likely to return many MPs from there. As for rising political star and PM-aspirant Thaksin Shina-watra, the success of feisty figures fighting to change the system for the better fits nicely with his visionary agenda. But the kind of fights they are associated with - for the poor, the rural workers, AIDS victims and so on - are hardly those of Thak-sin's technocrats. Says Weerasak: "Many of those elected in Bangkok are social activists, NGO leaders and so on. Thaksin has been indifferent to these people and it is now too late for him to show support for them."

The big loser was former-PM Banharn Silapa-archa. In his personal fiefdom of Suphan Buri, all "his" candidates lost. Says Likhit: "All three winners there were not connected to Banharn whatsoever. Yet Suphan Buri is supposed to be Banharn city." Pramote's win in Bangkok was partly due to his stand against cronyism at the agriculture ministry - another Banharn stronghold. On top of that, Banharn's estranged brother Chum-pol, who lost his cabinet post two years ago due to the sibling rivalry, grabbed a senate seat in Bangkok. "This was a slap in the face for Banharn," says a diplomat.

So when will Chuan go to the polls? He knows that the optimum economic scenario will be at mid-year, and he wants to present the budget for next year before facing the voters. That still makes the last quarter of the year the best bet. By then, the new Senate should have settled in, and it will be easier to tell if Thailand has indeed taken another step on the reform path. Says Kriengsak: "Things are pointing in a better direction, but we should be a little hesitant in announcing the triumph of political reform. It's too early to say that it's a new era just yet." Hesitant, but hopeful.

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