Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Eyes on Barack there, on Samak here

Eyes on Barack there, on Samak here

Both are the hottest politicians right now. One is an American, the other is Thai. They are from different generations. Barack and Samak.

Barack Obama has already surprised American political watchers by beating closest rival Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus on Jan 3. That boosted his chances of representing the Democrats in the presidential election later this year. Although the wife of the former United States president was able to redeem herself by winning the primary five days later in New Hampshire, it was quite a close call.

The race for the top job in the White House still has a very long way to go, with 10 races to contest, including another primary in Michigan today and South Carolina on Jan 26. The Michigan primary is uncertain. But Mr Obama now is riding on confidence that he will repeat the Iowa success in South Carolina.

Mr Obama's surging popularity is due to more than the colour of his skin. If he can go all the way, the US could have its first non-white figure leading the country. Mrs Clinton also wants to set the record as the first female president of the most powerful country in the world.

The support piling on for Mr Obama is not purely due to his mixed race (Kenyan father and white American mother). Voters in the US are hungry for change in the leadership of the US administration. ''Change'' is already a key word in his nationwide campaign for backing from Democrat members.

The verdict in Iowa, where Mrs Clinton was supposed to come first, underlines the desire for something new in American leadership. People there long for a young, energetic president who dares to think out of the box, who is eager to come up with new ideas. For his supporters, the 47-year-old freshman senator from Illinois fits in well with the desire for a new generation to guide the US into a new era. Though the Clinton camp has warned of possible dangers to the country with someone who has no experience in administering the US at the national and international levels, many Democrat voters simply shrugged off that worry. They are weary of old-style politics and ready for a gamble.

A big gamble is taking place here in Thailand, too, as Samak Sundaravej looks poised to fulfil his political ambition to be prime minister. With his People Power party coming first in the Dec 23 elections, he has the right to be No. 1 at Government House. On the night when he learned of the results, the 73-year-old politician declared himself ready for the premiership. Although many PPP winning candidates have been ordered to run again in by-elections by the Election Commission, the repeated win in a by-election contest in Nakhon Ratchasima on Sunday shows that the party with the most members loyal to ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra remains strong, and its members will come back no matter how many yellow cards the poll agency gives the PPP. The chance for the Democrats to form a government is now remote, unless a ''political accident'' incapacitates the PPP.

What Mr Samak has to prove is he can work without Mr Thaksin pulling the strings behind him, as many are casting doubt on this. Another challenge is whether he is of sufficient calibre to propel Thailand back into the position of a key player in Southeast Asia.

Thailand cannot stay alone like in the old days. Its future depends on success within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. As Asean secretary-general Ong Keng Yong said shortly before ending his tenure recently, countries in the region need a new breed of leader with the vision to look beyond national interests to carry the momentum for the grouping to prosperity.

It is undeniable that political problems in Thailand hurt international confidence in the country. It also has an impact on the region. The 10-member Asean once fretted about CLMV (diplomatic jargon referring to Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) dragging down its progress after embracing the four countries into the club. As Vietnam's economy and its role in the region are on the rise, that acronym should be changed to CLMT.

Only time will tell whether Sen Barack will be given a chance to run his country for a change, and whether Mr Samak can move our country forward.

Saritdet Marukatat is News Editor, Bangkok Post.

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