Sunday, June 26, 2011

Thailand's general election Lucky Yingluck

Even copying their opponent’s policies has done the ruling party little good
WITH little more than a week to go before polling day on July 3rd, it is clear that the opposition Pheu Thai (PT) party will win more seats than any other in Thailand’s 500-strong parliament. This will mark an extraordinary comeback for the unofficial leader of PT, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister ousted in a military coup in 2006 and now living in exile in Dubai as a fugitive from Thai justice. Some even predict that PT may win an outright majority, though a hung parliament looks more likely. But in Thai politics merely winning an election is not enough; whether PT gets to form a government is another matter entirely.

The surge of enthusiasm for PT owes a lot not only to Mr Thaksin’s enduring popularity among Thailand’s rural poor, but also to the dizzying rise of the official party leader, his younger sister Yingluck, who was unknown only a month or so ago. When Mr Thaksin picked her to lead PT into the election many dismissed it as a quixotic, even bizarre gesture. It turns out to have been a stroke of genius.

The 44-year-old businesswoman has never held or campaigned for political office before. Yet she behaves as if she has been doing it all her life and has completely wrong-footed her main opponent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the prime minister and leader of the Democrat Party that heads the ruling coalition. At the start of the campaign the two rivals were just about even. It is mostly Ms Yingluck’s bravura campaigning that has opened up the gap. Mr Thaksin described his younger sister as his “clone”. In fact, she brings her own qualities and attributes to the campaign, drawing in people beyond the PT base.

A fresher face even than the relatively youthful 47-year-old Mr Abhisit, and a woman campaigning in the very male world of Thai politics, she has injected a buzz and excitement into the election. Her seasoned, pragmatic campaign managers have exploited her looks and easy-going nature to the full. She, for her part, has played the perfect candidate by sticking closely to her sound bites and smiling ceaselessly at the camera.

As to her policies (not that her adoring supporters care), she has promised to continue the populist economic programmes of her brother when he was prime minister from 2001 to 2006. She promises, for instance, to give free Tablet PCs to about 1m new schoolchildren and to raise the minimum wage. But, aware that triumph for Mr Thaksin’s party will undoubtedly rile those (such as the army) who got rid of him in a 2006 coup, she has struck a conciliatory tone. She vows that there will no revenge for the coup, and that she won’t rush into devising amnesties for Mr Thaksin. For all the enthusiasm of his “red shirt” supporters, he remains a divisive figure.

Even with the advantages of incumbency, the Democrat Party has floundered. Their rather bewildered campaign manager concedes that the timing of Ms Yingluck’s candidature, pretty much on the day the campaign began, was brilliant. She stole the headlines and has never looked back—and a month is just long enough to remain an exciting novelty while avoiding serious scrutiny. Some mutter that she could yet have to answer to charges of perjury arising from the sale of Mr Thaksin’s telecoms company five years ago, but that will have to wait until after July 3rd.

In contrast to the smiley-feely Ms Yingluck, Mr Abhisit and his deputy and finance minister, Korn Chatikavanij, are both Oxford-educated technocrats, less polished at working a crowd. Mr Abhisit has looked less stiff on the stump than in past elections, though it doesn’t come naturally. One recent afternoon, he walked the length of a market in Bangkok, shaking hands, posing for photos with vendors and residents, a yellow garland draped around his powder-blue shirt and windbreaker.

Supporters foisted gifts on him; cakes, flowers and the odd baby. He smiled—but it might as well have been a wince. Arriving at a community centre where former drug addicts had gathered on plastic chairs, he launched into a detailed analysis of why Mr Thaksin’s hardline policies against dealers did not work. He lost the audience’s attention.

It does not help that the Democrat Party has proposed a lot of similarly populist economic policies to PT’s. In the scramble for votes, especially among Mr Thaksin’s core constituency of poorer supporters, the Democrat Party—against its better instincts—has also made a lot of expensive promises. It is offering subsidies for rice farmers and its own version of a hike in the minimum wage. One academic commentator, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, has called this campaign the “race to the populist bottom”. Mr Korn has costed PT’s populism at a whopping 2.06 trillion baht ($68 billion) in the first year, but the Democrats aren’t doing so badly either.

These promises of largesse alienate their traditional supporters in business, nervous about having to pay for the new wages, and do Ms Yingluck no damage.

The minnows will decide

For all the focus on Mr Abhisit and Ms Yingluck, if neither wins an outright majority of seats, then it will (as usual) be Thailand’s smaller parties that play a decisive role in a hung parliament. None has any ideology; they will simply haggle for ministerial posts and local pork.

Bhumjaithai, a vehicle for Newin Chidchob, a banned politician and former Thaksin henchman, could come third, perhaps with 40 or so seats. The party says it will stick with the Democrats, its current partners, and is leery of PT. Another party, Chart Thai Pattana (CTP), is courting both main parties and may well join PT in a flash. Other parties lack the numbers but could add some ballast, particularly if PT is nervous about fraud cases that might disqualify MPs. One tiny party is led by a retired general, Sondhi Boonyaratglin, leader of the coup in 2006, and so an unlikely ally for Thaksinites. But there are no permanent enemies in Thai politics.

And then there is Mr Thaksin’s old foe, the powerful army. Besides staging the 2006 coup, it was instrumental behind the scenes in the formation of the present government. It has promised to stay in its barracks. But a close result and the ensuing horse-trading might tempt it to meddle again—especially if it looks as if Mr Thaksin is on his way back. The Economist

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