Thu, 09 Nov 2000

Thailand in spotlight as election nears

SINGAPORE: Three years ago this month, Thailand was on the ropes when Chuan Leekpai of the Democrat Party succeeded the hapless Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh as prime minister. The baht was in trouble and the International Monetary Fund was already ordering textbook remedies, with mixed results. Chuan has been credited with some good repair work on the economy, aided by sound strategists such as Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda and 1 Deputy Premier Supachai Panitchpakdi.

From minus 10 percent GDP and some two million white-collar workers made jobless, Thailand could make 5 percent this year. Inflation is down to 2 percent from the frightful 10 percent in 1998; interest rates, by which businesses live or die, are also down to single digits.

But these nice numbers hide the social deprivation in the North-east farm region and the Bangkok and southern provinces' service and commercial sectors. Another anomaly is that the stock market is going against the positive recovery trend, down 40 percent on its value this year to be among the world's three weakest bourses. Confidence is uncertain.

Despite the patchy record, Chuan and his Democrat Party should be able to call in their markers in the election due for Jan 6. This is uncertain, too, and more's the pity. Parliament will be dissolved tomorrow to set up an election whose implications will extend beyond Thailand.

Together with Singapore and Malaysia, the three countries are South-east Asia's only bright spots to override the foreboding which international financiers feel about the ASEAN region, owing to the lurches in Indonesia. Nothing wrong with that, as Thaksin's brand of populism -- which extends to a three-year debt moratorium for farmers and loans for all of the country's 80,000 villages -- must be a breath of fresh air to jaded Thais.

Bankers and business people prefer a continuation of Chuan's asceticism, marked by patient work on banking and the electoral system to check vote-buying. Unless the campaign produces radical changes to known policy outlines, Thailand could not come unglued if Thaksin realizes his ambition to be prime minister.

The problem -- and here resides the probability of upheaval -- is that he may not get to head the government if Thai Rak Thai prevails. He is facing a probe by the National Counter Corruption Commission for alleged illegal share transfers in 1997 when he was deputy prime minister. If he is found guilty and the Constitutional Court upholds the ruling, he will be out of politics for five years. He has until the end of the month to make his defense, with the election due five weeks after that. Fine, if Chuan wins or Thaksin is cleared. But Thailand will be in a pickle if Thaksin wins but is disqualified, as Thai Rak Thai is a one-man band.

-- The Straits Times/Asia News Network