Sunday, December 23, 2007

Corruption and politics: Thailand's old guard set to return in post-coup election

Friday, December 21, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand: One leading candidate in Thailand's election is nicknamed the "Walking ATM Machine" for allegedly doling out cash to buy votes. Another reportedly made millions from illegal gambling dens.

Thai voters elect a new government Sunday, 15 months after the military deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on grounds that he was too corrupt. It looks like they will get more of the same.

Local commentators have dubbed the election the return of Thailand's political dinosaurs, many of whom were sidelined during Thaksin's six-year grip on power.

"Unless the old guard has come up with new ideas, it is likely that Thai politics will return to the same vicious cycle of vote-buying, election, corruption, protests — and then, perhaps, another coup," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

A military coup unseated Thaksin, a business tycoon turned politician, in September 2006 after months of public protests against him. The election will fulfill the army's promise to return the country to democracy.

Corruption and politics have long gone hand-in-hand in Thailand. Those in power are routinely accused of using their positions to enrich themselves and their families.

The leading candidates include several veterans well acquainted with the money politics and backroom dealing that have plagued Thai politics for decades, fueling the instability that has led to 18 coups since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

Among them is 72-year-old right-wing firebrand Samak Sundaravej, a former governor of Bangkok and leading contender for prime minister.

Samak, who once hosted a TV cooking show, has been accused of malfeasance for signing two questionable contracts while governor. Both deals — a waste management contract in 2003 and the purchase of fire trucks in 2004 — were allegedly marred by bidding irregularities. The case remains under investigation.

Samak, who denies any wrongdoing, heads the People's Power Party, a group of Thaksin supporters that polls indicate will win the most seats in the 480-member House of Representatives, though fall short of a majority. The rival Democrat Party is expected to finish second.

Thaksin is living in exile in London and has been barred from Thai politics for five years.

"I have to bring (Thaksin) back to the limelight," Samak said in an interview. "We will use the same policies. Thaksin can give some advice — if that is not against the law."

Another People's Power Party candidate with a dicey past is Chalerm Yoobamrung, a sharp-tongued politician who took refuge in Denmark and Sweden after a 1991 military coup in which he and other cabinet members were accused of enriching themselves.

Early in his political career, Chalerm, 59, was dogged by media reports that he made his riches in the gambling business. He was once charged with engaging in gambling, which is illegal in Thailand, but never indicted.

He also has been accused of using his clout to get his sons out of trouble. After one son was acquitted in 2004 of murdering a policeman in a nightclub brawl, Chalerm's popularity fell, and he kept a low profile until re-emerging in this election.

Not all the major candidates are corrupt. Democrat Party head Abhisit Vejjajiva, 43, another contender for prime minister, has a clean record. Then again, the Oxford-educated, former economics professor has never held a high elected office.

The "Walking ATM Machine," former prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa, heads the mid-sized Chart Thai party, which is likely to be courted by the two top parties as they vie to form a coalition government after the election. He may even be offered the prime minister post again, in return for his party's support.

Banharn, 75, is also known as "Mr. 20 Percent" for allegedly skimming that amount off past government contracts. He refutes the charges.

Critics say his alleged corruption and mismanagement of the economy during a stint as prime minister in 1995-96 paved the way for the collapse of Thailand's currency, sparking the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

The vertically challenged Banharn inspired a frequent quip: "It doesn't matter that Thailand's prime minister is so short, because he just does all deals under the table."

No comments: