Saturday, December 22, 2007

Thailand goes to polls

Thailand travels to the polls today to elect a new authorities replacing the military junta's caretaker government. Coming 15 calendar months after the September 2006 coup, there is intense political play involving rigging, vote-buying, scandals and a convoluted political map wherein the junta-backed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) goes on to churn out legislation, despite democratic norms.

An unprecedented 2.9 million absentee ballots were project last weekend, more than than the sum of the last five elections together. The 65-million state (46 million eligible voters) is at another turning point in its disruptive political dispensation which have witnessed 18 coup d'etats and 17 Constitutions since the 1932 revolution, which abolished absolute monarchy and led to the first Constitution.

Ironically, as Kingdom Of Thailand observes 75 old age of its first Fundamental Law and the 80th birthday of long-serving sovereign Bhumibhol Adulyadej this year, there is small cheer. The political landscape have go a "them" and "us" conflict — between cabal protagonists and ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Caught in the morass of bitter cross-fighting between politicians, military and bureaucracy, is a aweary electorate and a tired economy.

The current deadlock can be attributed to the 2006 coup d'etat led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, which overthrew the elective authorities of "self-made" telecommunications baron and politician Thaksin, a colourful and controversial figure. His Tai Rak Thai, TRT (Thais Love Thai) won a landslide triumph in 2001 and was re-elected in 2005.

Much of Thaksin's good will had dissipated as he began his 2nd term. The self-styled CEO PM's ("a state is a company") heavy-handed style and blazing neglect for institutional bank checks (such as circumventing the 1997 Fundamental Law — "Peoples Charter" — for his ain ends) establish rapacious critics.

Thaksin stays popular in the rural heartland owed to his populist policies — 'Thaksinomics' was welcomed in the wake of the 1997-98 economical crisis. TRT's 30 tical (85 cents) health-care insurance of every Thai, one million tical rotating monetary fund ($30,000) for every small town and moratorium on agricultural debt won over the countryside.

Heady with popularity and seemingly invincible, Thaksin committed a series of high-profile blunders — a perceived neglect of the revered monarch, unaccounted violent deaths in the 2004 "war on drugs" and extra-judicial drainings in Thailand's Malay-Muslim southern states (Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani) in 2005. Political discontentment came to a caput when a "rich" Thaksin tried to acquire richer 'unfairly' — through his $1.87 billion tax-free sale of his Shin Corporation to Singapore's Temasek Holdings in 2006.

In 2005, Sondhi Limthongkul, ex-Thaksin crony-turned-foe, tapped into the choler and started a political campaign to "return powerfulness to the King" seeking the monarch's intercession to name a new government, under the 1997 Fundamental Law (Section 7). Twenty three peoples' arrangements jumped on the bandwagon, creating a disparate alliance — the People's Alliance for Democracy. Thaksin responded by a phone call to "return powerfulness to the people".

In the catch elections of April 2006, boycotted by the opposition, Thaksin garnered 57 per cent of the ballots cast. The Election Committee announced another election in October 2006, with Thaksin as caretaker. As Kingdom Of Thailand readied itself, the military "piggy-backed on the anti-Thaksin movement" and army tanks rolled into Bangkok, 16 old age after the last coup d'etat (1991) — the longer time period when the military stayed out of politics.

The junta, which came promising to right Thaksin's misbehaviors with his issue and exile, stand ups discredited today. It have topped Thaksin's bloopers — with allegations of corruptness and maladministration, abuse of Martial law and emergency, a Thaksin witch-hunt, clampdown on media, 18,000 websites blocked and a 35 per cent defense mechanism budget increase. The last straw was the infliction of a controversial military-backed 18th Constitution.

The junta's mishaps started soon after the coup d'etat with the repeal of the 1997 Fundamental Law (16th), regarded as a "Peoples Charter" and replacing it with an interim Fundamental Law (17th). Subsequently it foisted the 18th Fundamental Law in the first-ever referendum in Tai history in August 2007.

The referendum gave small pick though — if disapproved, the cabal retained the right to take any of the former 17 Constitutions. Cornered, one-half the electorate participated and gave a narrow blessing (57 per cent).

The new Fundamental Law is pro-military — including an amnesty to coup d'etat leaders, a half-appointed Senate, politicisation of the bench and a two-term bounds on the PM, which effectively blocks Thaksin's return. The cabal also engineered a prohibition on TRT and its top 111 functionaries on evidence of opinion poll fraud through the military-appointed Constitutional Tribunal.

What the cabal did not expect was its increasing unpopularity — and Thaksin's unexpected rise, literally from the ashes. Cashing on his personal popularity and perceived illegality of the coup, Thaksin, the masterful political character made respective superb political moves — a plucky website on himself, coup d'etat of Manchester City (and inducting three Tai players) which played to national pridefulness in football-crazy Thailand.

The most of import is his placeholder function in reincarnating his disbanded political party TRT as Palang Prachachon Party (People's Power Party, PPP) led by a rightwing politician Samak Sundaravej, who openly names himself a Thaksin "nominee".

Political melodrama have reached a crescendo — PPP saying a ballot for the coup-supporting Democrats is a ballot for the junta, and a ballot for PPP, a ballot for Thaksin. Ex-TRT members are fielding household and friends. Charges and counter-charges are flying around — PPP leaked classified written documents of the junta's secret plan to destabilise PPP (thrown out by the military-appointed Election Commission).

PPP is accused of VCD statistical distribution in nor'-east Thailand, where Thaksin is seemingly imploring people to vote for PPP — implying Thaksin is active in the elections, which he is not supposed to.

Thaksin is advocating a National Reconciliation authorities which his interpreter claims echoes King Bhumibhol's phone calls for unity. Incidentally, sentiment polls demo PPP have a narrow lead.

The elections offering small by manner of programs and policies. Some campaigners have got questionable antecedents. Samak Sundaravej supported the 1976 violent clampdown on leftists. The Democrats promise to minimise the military's role, which peals hollow. Smaller political parties add to the confusion and may enlistment their lucks with the winner.

The current NLA, instead of being dissolved, goes on to go through and pass controversial bills. On NLA's microwave radar is an Internal Security Bill which will raise the military's role behind-the-scenes. Many post-poll scenarios are being touted — unstable government, another coup, banning of PPP — all roadstead look to take to confusion. According to Ji Ungpakorn, a outstanding academic, "The political circus have come up up to town."

The lone counterbalance and perhaps trust is Thailand's plutonium noi (common people), whose formidable activism and peoples motion in 1973, 1976 and 1992 forced out autocratic regimes, could yet come to bear.

The writer is a political man of science and independent journalist, who lived in, and closely follows developments in Thailand.

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