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Democrats rally in defense of economy

 

Thanong Khanthong attended the party to kick off the Democrat Party's agenda for solving the current economic mess.

The Democrats are not the opposition bloc for nothing. At the party's gala fund-raising banquet at the Queen Sirikit Convention Centre, nationally broadcast over the weekend, their two economic generals, Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda and Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi, could not have been gentler and kinder to the Chavalit administration.

After giving Chavalit and his economic dream team a chance to run the country for four months, the Democrats launched an overture to what could subsequently evolve into a national debate over how to fix the economy.

The 51-year-old political party brought out their two best economic minds, known for their no-nonsense kindness. While Supachai called for the government to set up a ''war room" to immediately begin tackling economic problems on a day-to-day basis, Tarrin went further, urging for a ''national call" to get the country's act together and prevent the economy from plunging into crisis.

The members of the Democrat Fan Club, infiltrated by government spies of course, were willing to pay a record Bt25,000 for a ticket to attend the talkshow and gather party propaganda materials. The event raked in Bt40 million for the party, which mustered more than 18 million votes in the July 1996 general election.

Still, like the outcome of the previous election, they have to be satisfied with being supporting actors in the political theatre.

Prior to that event, both the Democrat Fan Club's members and the Democrat bashers asked almost the same question: Would it make any difference if the Democrats were to be a core partner of the present administration and undertook to clean up the economic mess? Indeed, it would have made a difference if the Democrats had captured the largest number of House seats to form the government.

For one thing, confidence would have been rebuilt on the back of the Democrat leadership following the horrible Banharn government, which did incalculable damage to the country by ignoring all suggestions to promote economic stability.

With a revival of investor confidence, the stock market under the Democrat government would have been hovering around the 1,100 to 1,200 level, although the economy would still be in a shambles. It would be much easier to tackle the economic problems if the stock market was not hovering in the 690 to 750 point range.

The asset quality of financial institutions has been exacerbated by the stock market meltdown. Banks and finance companies, which previously lent money by accepting stock as collateral, have witnessed their loan portfolios deteriorate along with the stock market crash, not to mention the economic slowdown that has given rise to other non-performing loans, largely in the real estate sector. A stock market of 1,100 to 1,200 would have given the government some breathing room to tackle the economic problems.

In the absence of any confidence in the government, stocks kept falling, first bringing Finance One Plc to its knees before triggering an inevitable wave of mergers and acquisitions in the finance sector. Confidence is not something that can be bought; it must be earned the old-fashioned way with honesty, integrity and competence.

The Chavalit administration has not earned nearly as much investor confidence as it likes to claim. The government is made up of old-style politicians, who are parochial in outlook and have dubious track records.

The New Aspiration Party, led by Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, is merely an ad hoc political party, set up only for the purpose of taking over the government machinery. There is almost an absence of underlying political ideals for the public good.

There is also a fight for heart and soul within the Democrat Party. The temptation to match its rival in vote-buying exists. However, a party member recently said that if the party hopes to build on its strength, it must abide by its founding father's principles, which prohibit vote-buying and the exploitation of political power merely to serve candidates.

The Palang Dharma Party has come closest to the high ideals a good political party must have, yet it has self-destructed by banking its survival entirely on the charisma of its leadership.

Apart from the crucial confidence factor, the Democrats would likely fare better than the present government in tackling the real sector. Some 31 months in power after the May Tragedy in 1992 did not turn the Democrats into geniuses, yet they have the experience to extend the government machinery into resolving, in a more systematic fashion, the nation's competitiveness problems and the well-being of the people employed in the agricultural sector.

Finance Minister Amnuay Viravan is fighting a solo battle against the economic slowdown and the financial crisis. He has virtually exhausted his fiscal and monetary weapons. Both Supachai and Tarrin questioned whether Amnuay really enjoyed a mandate or received cooperation from his Cabinet colleagues to tackle economic problems. After all, most Cabinet members act as if they come from Mars.

The Chat Pattana Party is shrewd enough to keep a low profile during the economic difficulties.

Industry Minister Korn Dabaransi has failed to provide a blueprint for enhancing Thailand's industrial competitiveness, which must be tackled simultaneously with the financial crisis.

Agriculture is almost a forgotten domain, although Thailand's potential in food-processing and exports is enormous.

Supachai and Tarrin were not off the mark when they said Amnuay was too busy to tackle the economic crisis and unable to get the cooperation he needs to chart a new course for the economy. Since Thailand is suffering both from a cyclical downturn and structural uncompetitiveness, it needs an overhaul of the way things are done.

This task can only be accomplished by a national call. The nation can no longer live off its past successes. Other nations, such as China, Vietnam and Indonesia, are quickly closing the production competitiveness gap with Thailand. There is a danger that complacency has set in with entrepreneurs, similar to the deep-rooted complacency about resolving Bangkok's horrendous traffic congestion.

If that is the case, a hundred Tarrins or Supachais are not worth a plug nickle.

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