SISAKET, Thailand — “If the counting is fair, losers must accept the results,” said Thai Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, trying to calm down an anxious nation as rioting spread to over a dozen provinces in the wake of national elections Jan. 6. Having just lost the premiership as his party was trounced at the polls, Chuan knows what losing feels like.
Amid reports of polling irregularities, accusations of election-fixing and a spate of sore-loser comments by bitter politicians, the Thai experiment in democracy appears to be fraying at the edges.
Judging from nationwide antielection protests against results seen as unfavorable, elections are all about winning. But for a democracy to function, winning cannot be everything; it can only be one side of the coin. The Bush-Gore contest in the United States proved that Thais are not alone in finding it difficult to embrace defeat. But losers are important, and good losers are necessary for democracy to have a chance.
Two good losers will be profiled here: the well-known Chuan, head of the Democrat Party, who gracefully acknowledged defeat and will step down as prime minister to make way for Thaksin Shinawatra; and the unknown Somsak Sripak, a small-time lawyer from rural Sisaket Province, who ran on Chuan’s Democrat ticket and went down with him in the polls.
Chuan comes from a poor family in Trang Province in the south of Thailand, where his mother once worked as a vendor at the local market. Asked by a TV reporter how she felt about her son losing, Mae Thuan Leekpai said that, win or lose, she’s proud of her son. “It’s the natural way of things,” she said, adding with a hint of maternal pride that her son has great perseverance and will keep on trying. Indeed, even as it became obvious the Democrats were about to lose power, Chuan stated that he was proud of his party and was not interested in joining a coalition government that ran counter to his principles. Instead he’ll lead the opposition in Parliament, where he has retained a seat through party-list apportionment.
Somsak was not a party-list candidate and will not get a seat in Parliament, but his good humor in defeat parallels that of his leader. Like Chuan, Somsak was outspent and outmaneuvered by the Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, his rival being a friend named Manop Charasdamrongnit.
Somsak grew up in Ban Paek, a small, rice-growing village in the Moon River Valley where his father ran the village mill and his mother was a silk weaver of some distinction. Asked how he felt about his son’s losing his bid for office, the elder Sripak responded much as the prime minister’s mother did: “He has to try; he loves politics too much not to.”
On the campaign trail, Chuan had the usual advantages and disadvantages of an incumbent; he was high-profile and had easy access to the press, but he was also busy running a country and stood to take the blame for the morbid state of the economy. In the northeast, Chuan’s subordinates were disadvantaged for two reasons: The Democrat Party is run by southerners, provoking a sense of regional rivalry; and, to make matters worse, Chuan and his government paid scant attention to the Moon River dam protests in the countryside and Bangkok, alienating many northeasterners in the Moon Valley.
In the end, Chuan lost out to newcomer Thaksin, whose two-year-old party is probably the best-organized, best-funded political movement Thailand has ever seen. Since Thaksin is the richest businessman in Thailand, there is a palpable, if naive, hope that he can succeed where more experienced politicians have failed simply because he has money, lots of it.
Indeed, not only was cash instrumental in buying media opportunities and luring talent to run under his party banner, it was used as an electoral lure. A million baht ($23,000) for every village — more than 70,000 of them. Debt moratorium for farmers. An assets-management company to bail out failed corporations. Medical care at a nominal fee for everyone. Already, flushed with hope, patients are lining up at hospitals demanding care and villages are plotting how to spend their cash gift. (Thaksin has not proposed dipping into his own coffers for these generous handouts, so the big question now is: Where will the money come from?)
Somsak, on the other end of the wealth spectrum, conducted his campaign on a budget of about $5,000 and could promise almost nothing except honest governance. Half his campaign funds were spent on small posters and flyers, another large chunk went to commissioning an original campaign jingle in the local dialect and there was just enough left over to hire a team of kids to put up posters, drive him to speech engagements and keep his dusty pickup truck full of gas.
His driver sets up a microphone in the shade, plugs it into two speakers in the back of the pickup truck and turns down the music that has attracted a small crowd in the blazing midday sun.
“Brothers and sisters,” the candidate says, “I would like to be your representative in Parliament. Don’t forget to vote on Jan. 6, and vote for whomever you like, but I recommend my party because it has the longest history and realistic policies. We have no money to give you and no big promises to make, but our party is the most experienced and reliable. Some of you may want to vote for Thai Rak Thai. Well, you are free to do that, but I hope you vote for me.”
Being poor, like his audience, Somsak has a difficult message to convey on behalf of his party: no gifts, no handouts, no unkeepable promises. A farmer asks about the falling sales price of rice. Somsak tries to explain the role of international market conditions. The other guys promised us money, villagers say. Debt-forgiveness and village handouts sound good, Somsak explains, but where would the money come from? From the people of course — taking from the left hand to give to the right.
Somsak gets back in his truck and heads off for another village, and five or six more after that before sunset. Sisaket is blanketed with rice fields dotted with clusters of villages, some so remote that dirt roads are the only way in and out. He spends the rest of the day crisscrossing Uthumphorn district, stopping to talk at village markets and designated electioneering spots, a bend in a village lane here, an empty plot there. He alternates between Thai and Lao, his command of the local dialect an important part of his rapport with the village folk. Women outnumber men, and old outnumber young, as the most ambitious young people have all gone to Bangkok to help support their families in the parched countryside.
The four kids assisting Somsak have run out of his posters, so they hand out posters of a handsome Democratic candidate who is a party-list candidate. These are grabbed with interest and disappointment. Somsak explains that village folk in Sisaket have always associated elections with handouts, and old habits die hard. He predicted some villagers would leave their lights ablaze late on election eve, indicating that they hadn’t been paid off yet, but felt that, overall, the Jan. 6 elections involved less vote-buying than previous contests, due to a strict electoral commission and numerous watchdog groups.
Just before sundown, the candidate and his sweaty, dusty staff call it a day and silently gulp down a meal of sticky rice, papaya salad and roast chicken at a roadside stand under the gargantuan poster of a better-funded campaign rival.
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