BANGKOKWith five weeks before Thailand's general election, it is not clear whether
front-runner Thaksin Shinawatra will be allowed to run at all, let alone form a
government if his Thai Rak Thai party comes out on top.
After three years of stability under
Chuan Leekpai's Democratic Party-led coalition, the electorate seems bored with
the respected but low-key Mr. Chuan, who has been prime minister for all but two
years since democracy was restored in 1992. The country may now face prolonged
uncertainty, with horse trading between parties and argument before the
Constitutional Court. This unappealing scenario could help abort a faltering
There is a silver lining. This is an
election where the process matters as much as the result. It is the first under
the 1997 constitution, a reformist document that owed its passage to a demand
for change caused by the economic crisis. Subsequent liberal pressure ensured
that enabling legislation submitted politicians and bureaucrats to new standards
of behavior, transparency and oversight.
Crucial to the outcome is how strictly
the new rules, aimed primarily at reducing the power of money and the role of
the businessman-politician in provincial areas, will be applied. That, as much
as the votes themselves, will determine the composition of the next government,
and whether Thailand's parliamentary system becomes more stable and less venal.
The irony of the effort to bring higher
standards to political life is that Mr. Thaksin is one of the nation's richest
men, and his wealth derives from telecommunications licenses acquired from the
government. His party has shot to the top of polls thanks to massive advertising
spending and Mr. Thaksin's effective presentation of himself as a new and
businesslike politician - despite his alliance with dubious old-style
He has been helped by constitutional
changes that will prevent members of Parliament from changing parties in the
future. Politicians leaped onto the Thai Rak Thai bandwagon just in time to meet
the election registration deadline.
But Mr. Thaksin still faces the
possibility that the National Counter-Corruption Commission will find him guilty
of hiding his wealth while a minister in a previous government. That would be
unlikely to be confirmed by the Constitutional Court before the election, but it
could mean that Mr. Thaksin would subsequently be barred from holding office. If
his party comes out on top, he would have to run an unstable coalition through
The anti-corruption commission is not to
be trifled with. This year it found Interior Minister and senior Democrat Sanan
Kachornprasart guilty of hiding assets and disbarred him from office.
The stance of the commission and the
Constitutional Court will remain subject to political pressures, but they will
be under close scrutiny by the media and nongovernmental organizations now armed
with a Freedom of Information Act that they have been using to good effect.
The elections themselves will be
scrutinized by the Election Commission, which this year proved resolute to the
point of being persnickety in enforcing new rules for the Senate election. It is
likely that vote buying will lead the commission to demand new balloting in some
Adding to uncertainties are other
electoral changes. Voters now have two votes, one for a local member of
Parliament and one, accounting for 100 out of 500 seats, for a national list
which includes each party's top figures. No one knows whether votes will now be
split or whether this system will help reduce the number of parties - 37 are
registered for this election but only five are major and another four are
significant for coalition-building.
Another innovation, central counting of
ballots, should make the voting process more secret and less subject to large
Concerns about a prolonged period of
political uncertainty are real. So are worries that unresolved banking problems,
oil prices and a global slowdown will make 2001 a difficult year for the
economy. Asset prices remain too high, and nationalist noises from Mr. Thaksin
suggest that corporate restructuring could stall under his leadership, with
favored businesses being shielded from creditors.
However, three and a half years after the
crisis broke, this election, and the procedures surrounding it, are testimony to
Thailand's fundamental stability, and to its ability to reform its institutions.
Two steps forward, one step back is the norm. That means many short-term
disappointments, but the medium term remains at least as bright as anywhere else
in this troubled region.