KONGThe process was always going to be as important as the result.
Ultimately, Thailand's electoral system will be judged by the character of the
government that emerges from the Jan. 6 lower house elections, the first under
its new constitution. But even before full results are available some pluses and
minuses can be chalked up.
The new electoral arrangements had two
main objectives. The first was to reduce the role of money in politics. This was
an end in itself, a way to improve the intellectual and moral level of members
of the National Assembly, and also a means of reducing the need for politicians
who had gained office from using it to reimburse the cost of getting elected.
The second objective was to achieve
greater stability by reducing the number of parties in the National Assembly and
preventing members from changing party allegiance while serving in it.
On the first point, at first glance
nothing has improved. By most accounts, cash for voters was no less available at
the constituency level than in the past, even if a slight effort was made to
disguise it out of fear of the Electoral Commission watchdogs.
It also seems likely that the heavy
campaign spending by Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party, which greatly
exceeded that of the incumbent Democrat Party, was a significant factor in the
Whether or not the Electoral Commission
now disbars a significant number of successful candidates on grounds of vote
buying, the impression remains that the process of reducing the role of money is
at best painfully slow.
However, even on this front there appear
to have been some gains. It is less undesirable for a party to come to power
through a nationwide campaign, however expensive, than through bribery at the
constituency level. The poor results of well heeled provincial representatives
of traditional parties suggest that many voters have taken money from all sides
but still voted heavily for Thai Rak Thai because it offered a clear alternative
to the Democrats and the possibility of a government that was more than just an
unstable multiparty coalition.
From that perspective the constitution
drafters' goal has been a stunning success. It now looks as though Thai Rak Thai
could have an absolute majority and that it and the Democrats between them will
have two thirds of all the seats. That is quite a result, given that 37 parties
contested the election and that in many areas local bosses affiliated to minor
parties rule the roost.
Mr. Thaksin was fortunate to attract many
regional political figures away from other parties into Thai Rak Thai just in
time before nominations closed in November. Under the old rules, this bandwagon
effect would have been of little long-term consequence. But now these members
are locked into Thai Rak Thai for the duration of the House of Representatives.
Other Thai parties, apart from the
Democrats, have always been unstable coalitions of factions. That has changed.
At least for now, those who joined Thai Rak Thai owe their success to Mr.
Thaksin, not vice versa. Similarly, as he was rich enough to finance a national
campaign, he was not reliant on their money.
Will Mr. Thaksin, the opportunist, now
take the opportunity of this result to raise the quality of Thai politics, and
appoint a government of people as competent as those in the outgoing
administration of Chuan Leekpai? At first glance the situation is not
Mr. Thaksin is a former policeman who
owes his fortune to deals with the government. He could in theory still be
disbarred from office by the Constitutional Court for past hiding of his assets,
although the scale of his victory now makes that unlikely.
His early recruits to Thai Rak Thai
included some of the sleaziest representatives of traditional politics. His
election campaign was a mix of populism and support for taxpayer funded bailouts
of deeply indebted big business. He is distrusted by the bureaucratic elite as
well as by foreign investors. There is understandable concern that Thailand
could be in for a repeat of the incompetent administration (1995-1996) of its
last businessman-prime minister, Banharn Silpa-archa.
Yet the scope of his victory, his few
political debts and the new constitutional rules governing cabinet appointments
as well as the conduct of legislators give Mr. Thaksin a chance to make a break
with the past. If he has the vision to seize it he may, as he promised to the
electorate, be able to provide Thailand with a government that is modernizing,
decisive, clean and stable.