BANGKOK — Thai voters dissatisfied with Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai’s ruling Democrat Party will have a hard time turning to the alternative Thai Rak Thai Party of telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra since public trust in the businessman has eroded.
The National Countercorruption Commission (NCCC) ruled Tuesday that Thaksin should be barred from politics for concealing assets worth about 2.37 billion baht (about $56 million) during his tenure as deputy prime minister in 1997 and 1998.
Thailand’s 1997 constitution requires politicians and senior officials to submit asset and liability reports when they are appointed to public office, when they leave their posts, and once again a year later.
If the Constitutional Court supports the NCCC decision, Thaksin, 51, could be banned from politics for five years. Thaksin has vowed to continue his campaign despite the NCCC ruling.
The probe into Thaksin’s wealth has dominated the runup to the Jan. 6 general election and cast doubt over Thailand’s political future. Thaksin’s popularity in Bangkok sharply declined following the NCCC ruling, with only 10.4 percent supporting him against 35.3 percent for Chuan in the latest survey released Wednesday by a Bangkok university.
In rural areas, however, Thaksin retains his lead, according to Somkiat Pongpaibool, director of the Rajabhat Institute’s information center. The latest survey, to be published Thursday, indicates people in remote northeastern provinces prefer the policies of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai, notably debt relief and village support funds, he said.
“The party may not keep its promise after the election. But it has given new hope to people who have been suffering from a deep crisis,” he said. “All former prime ministers who are now running in the campaign have proven they cannot work.”
Apart from Chuan, former Prime Ministers Chavalit Yongchaiyudh of the New Aspiration Party and Banharn Silapa-archa of the Chart Thai Party are top contenders in their respective districts.
Somkiat said the voting behavior in remote rural areas seldom changes, although independent agencies are trying to do away with traditional money-based political patronage.
The Election Commission had already barred three candidates from standing due to vote-buying. “The action of the commission rarely cleans the pool, but forces the buying method to become more sophisticated instead,” he said.
Old-style politics may give Thaksin’s party about 50 of the 138 seats in northeastern parts of the country, enough to win a majority, he said.
Anusorn Tamjai, an analyst at Citibank in Thailand, expects the tycoon’s party will win the election by a narrow margin over the rival Democrat Party because its policies remain attractive in the current environment.
Free market mechanisms championed by the Democrats do not work completely in developing countries facing difficulties like Thailand, he said.
“The free market school of thought prevailing during the past three years brings a very slow recovery to the Thai economy. Voters are likely to be looking to a new school which gives greater role to the state to run the economy,” he said.
In response to the economic slowdown expected next year, business communities need a new government to instigate a certain degree of protectionism to help local industry, he said.
Kasem Sirisamphan, a former constitutional draftsman, said although Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai might win a majority, he questioned who would have confidence in a country whose elected prime minister has had to testify in court.
Ukrist Pathmanand, a researcher at Chulalongkorn University’s Institute of Asian Studies, said Thaksin’s case is another test for Thai democracy. “If Thai Rak Thai wins, we may face uncertainty. . . . In order to maintain the spirit of political reforms, we will examine politicians who are unworthy to be elected and bar them from winning,” he said.
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