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The sad tale of Tarrin and the Democrats' defeat

January 19, 2001

Only two days before the January 6 general election, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai decided to dump his economic tsar Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda. Out of the blue, he pushed Oxford graduate Abhisit Vejjajiva to the forefront of the campaign. And he sent the message that Abhisit would head the party's economic team and become finance minister if the Democrats won the election.

Across the country, posters of Chuan and Abhisit, the experienced and the new blood, were hastily erected as a twin image to win back trust from the voters.

It was too late.

The Democrats, as leaders of the sitting government, were doomed to lose anyway. Three years after the Asian crisis, the public was fed up with pace of the economic recovery. Poll after poll indicated that the Democrats would not make a comeback. The last minute reshuffle added to the voters' impression that the Democrats were caught in political infighting and that they had lost all energy to form the next government.

Signs of trouble in the Democrat camp appeared late last year when Deputy Prime Minister Dr Supachai Panitchpakdi and Deputy Finance Minister Dr Pisit Lee-ahtam called it quits. Supachai wanted to leave politics to prepare himself for the post of director-general of the World Trade Organisation, which he assumes next year. Pisit, meanwhile, thought that politics was not to his taste, having joined the Chuan government only because the country needed his help at the time.

With the departure of these two key economic figures, the momentum of the Democrats slid further. Meanwhile, Tarrin's political wheel of fortune changed dramatically. He became to be viewed as a liability for the party rather than an asset.

That was really sad. Tarrin, arguably Thailand's foremost finance manager, turned into such a fat target for political attacks that he lost all local stature. Internationally, Tarrin remained highly respected. The problem is that foreigners do not vote.

Leaks cropped up that Tarrin would be removed from the top economic team. Tarrin could not believe that the party would betray him. To deny Tarrin amounted to a denial of the Democrats' entire economic reform programme of the past three years. But in the end, he was destined to become the sacrificial lamb.

In politics anything can happen. Inside the Democrat Party, there was an absence of unity. After the departure of Sanan Khachornprasat as secretary-general, the party had become weakened overall. The arrival of Anant Anant-trakul as secretary-general only served as a contingency move to allay concern over the party's leadership problems. Anyway, Chuan tightened his leadership grip over the party in the process. His term is for three years, ending in about two years time.

Suthep Thaugsuban, the transport and communications minister, is now trying to wrest control of the party which, having truly become the party of the South, has succeeded in alienating voters elsewhere. He and Banyat Bandadtan do not get along. There is a possibility that Suthep will back Abhisit as the party's new leader if Chuan were to step down.

Given this mess, how could the Democrats expect to be re-elected? They were facing the formidable army of telecom billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, who had prepared a very well-run campaign, backed by a huge cash machine. The Thai Rak Thai Party had more unity and a better political platform. Its members all backed the party leader.

Facing imminent defeat, Chuan, as the general going into the battle, should have stepped down to save the party. Yet he did the unthinkable by ordering the execution of his right-hand man, Tarrin, who had been loyal to the party. The incident displayed Chuan's survival instinct, which comeS before anything else.

It is likely that when the new government takes power, it will continue to use Tarrin as a political scapegoat, blaming him for causing more damage to the Thai economy. Sadly and predictably, no Democrat will come to his defence.

The Democrats should do some soul searching and redefine their goals and their place in Thai politics. For this reason, the party needs new leadership, one that can unite it and draw up a better policy platform for the next election.

To all intents and purposes, Chuan's days are over. Social critic Thirayudh Boonmee's prediction that Chuan would never make a third comeback as prime minister is right on target. If Chuan and the die-hard Democrats refuse to accept this reality, they are doomed to lose the next election - or even go into oblivion.




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