Saturday, January 05, 2008

People Power TRIUMPHS

People Power TRIUMPHS

The victory of the People Power Party last Sunday must have been sweet for the former prime minister, but the shape of the next government is still far from clear, writes SONGPOL KAOPATUMTIP

Thaksin Shinawatra finally made it. Despite all the hurdles put in its way, the party that pledged to continue his political legacy emerged victorious in last Sunday's general election - a feat widely interpreted as a rejection of the Sept 19, 2006 coup that has since put him in exile.

For members of the People Power Party (PPP), which took 233 of 480 Lower House seats in the Dec 23 polls, it was a vindication of their staying power, which has been put to the test ever since their former party, Thai Rak Thai (TRT), was dissolved by the Constitutional Tribunal on May 30 of this year.

The resurgence of the PPP and the election outcome itself were remarkable - for a number of reasons.

For its part, the Council for National Security (CNS) cited four reasons for staging the coup, namely widespread corruption in the Thaksin administration, interference in independent organisations, actions deemed to be an affront to the monarchy, and social divisions caused by the administration.

By making Samak Sundaravej, a staunch royalist, leader of the PPP after the dissolution of his old party, Mr Thaksin had outmanoeuvred political opponents who might have used the royal card to smear the PPP, and thus dim its chance of winning.

Secondly, the election was held under the firm grip of the military. On the pretext of maintaining order, some 200,000 police and military personnel were deployed to help the Election Commission (EC) supervise the poll. Martial law is still in place in 31 of the 76 provinces, including those where the PPP's support was known to be strongest.

Despite all these measures and bombshell revelations about a secret military plot to undermine its election campaign, the PPP outperformed pollster predictions, which had foreseen a PPP win but with significantly fewer than the 233 parliamentary seats that it actually won. The PPP placed strongly in its northern and northeastern strongholds, winning 59 percent and 71 percent of the popular vote, respectively.

The Democrat Party, which the coup-makers tacitly backed as the alternative to the PPP, swept its traditional stronghold in the South as well as Bangkok, where last year's coup was warmly embraced by Mr Thaksin's opponents. The party also outperformed pollster expectations. But with just 165 parliamentary seats under his control, Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has had to stay on the sidelines as the PPP tries to cobble up a coalition with smaller parties.

Mr Samak campaigning in Bangkok.

Significantly, many TRT defectors who had distanced themselves from Thaksin did not fare well either. For example, Puea Pandin Party leader Suvit Khunkitti, a former TRT lieutenant and longtime MP for Khon Kaen province, was defeated by PPP candidates in his own turf.

With the PPP now set to form a new coalition government with smaller parties that comprise mostly former TRT loyalists, all eyes are now on Mr Thaksin.

Interviewed by reporters in Hong Kong last Tuesday, the former prime minister expressed his wish to return to Thailand to clear himself of the corruption charges brought by the CNS-appointed Assets Scrutiny Committee (ASC). He also declared that he would not re-enter politics.

But in a statement likely to upset his many enemies, Mr Samak repeated his pledge last Sunday during an interview with CNN to reverse the Constitutional Tribunal ruling that disbanded the TRT and barred 111 of the party's executive members, including Mr Thaksin, from politics for five years for electoral fraud.

Coup no cure for corruption

But legal remedies alone won't be enough to right the country's course. Real change will require a fundamental overhaul of the way the country is governed, clearing up corruption and giving people more say in local and national administration. That won't be easy, because respect for the rule of law and a belief in equality and freedom have yet to be fully instilled into our political culture.

Nonetheless, many people believe the real issue lies in how to prevent the military from interfering in the democratic process.

"You cannot end corruption by staging a coup," said respected academic Thanes Charoenmuang of Chiangmai University, in an interview with Prachatai newspaper last Tuesday.

What worries Thanes is the country's lack of a political culture in which members of a political party can question the ethics of their party leader or even call for an investigation into corruption charges against him.

"When accusations were levelled against Mr Thaksin, no one in his party took action. That allowed forces outside Parliament, particularly the middle classes in Bangkok, to call for his removal," he explained.

In his opinion, the outpouring of support for the PPP in the North and Northeast had little to do with regionalism. It was all about the economy.

"These voters had enjoyed the fruit of the economic boom under Thaksin. With the country's economy going nowhere during most of the past 15 months, they look again at Thaksin as their saviour," said Mr Thanes.

"Further analysis is needed to explain the strong showing of the Democrat Party in Bangkok, where it took 27 of 36 seats at stake. But my feeling is that Bangkok voters went so strongly for the Democrats in a vain attempt to avoid another political confrontation," said Mr Thanes. "They probably feared that the military would stage another coup if the PPP gained power."

On the ground, however, the shape of the next coalition government is still unclear. At the time of this writing late Friday afternoon, there were indications that the Democrat Party would be left out as the sole opposition party, paving the way for a six-party coalition government led by the PPP.

But with the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) automatically assuming the role of a Senate after the elected Lower House is installed, the PPP-led government will likely find it difficult to implement any constitutional amendments, including any attempt to reverse any draft laws passed in haste by the NLA during the past few months.

This interim Senate will stay on until after the EC has organised an election - tentatively set for March 2 - for 76 members of the 150-strong Upper House, as required by the new constitution. The remaining 74 Upper House seats will be filled by a panel selected from the higher courts and other state bodies - a requirement that likely will enable the military and its allies to retain some control of the Senate, which will also have the power, with a three-fifths majority, to impeach the prime minister and any elected members of the Lower House.

More importantly, the NLA passed the controversial new Internal Security Act (ISA) just two days before the election. The legislation gives the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) extensive power to contain domestic dissent and detain suspected threats to national security for six months without trial. This is hardly a situation that the next government would like to confront - while ensuring that the economy will not worsen under growing international financial uncertainty.

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