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Thaksin showmanship lacks substance

In politics, style is more important than substance. Last Sunday, Thaksin Shinawatra, the telecom tycoon, concentrated on polishing his style in his bid for the premiership.

The leader of the Thai Rak Thai Party presided over an American-style political rally that created new imagery on the Thai political landscape - almost like a national convention of the Democrat or Republican parties.

Thaksin sought to project the image of a fresh leader, destined to take Thailand into the digital age. Stuffed with money from deep pockets, he threw a lavish political party for his 10,000 supporters. Only Thaksin - who is worth about Bt50 billion - could afford to do that.

The stadium of Thammasat University's Rangsit campus looked small and only 5,000-6,000 managed to get seats. The rest had to stay outside the stadium and watch Thaksin on monitor screens. Yet, all were treated to the same visual surrealism.

Inside the stadium, there were three huge projectors, accompanied by sound and light effects, to highlight the image of the party's leader and its key members. Then there were the big waves from his supporters. It was part of a new American-style political culture, at least in its crudest form.

"We took the rally style from American political conventions," Suranand Vejjajiva, an executive member of the Thai Rak Thai Party, reportedly said. He added that Thaksin had planned this particular political campaign format a month ago. But in the US, conventions normally last two or three days, with separate meetings by party members. Suranand admitted that this was a compact version of the US-style convention.

Apparently, Thaksin did not hold the rally for political re-education. Nor had he any intention to reach out to a broad audience with a message of political redemption.

In this political game, the votes are the only thing that counts.

So instead of drawing up a political or economic manifesto that will lay the foundations for a new Thailand, he quickly resorted to pandering for votes. His immediate task was to muster support from a block of 30-40 million Thais, most of whom have no ear for the tough issues of financial reform, corporate debt restructuring or economic stimulation. They simply want to know when their living conditions will improve and whether they have a future.

Thaksin is caught in a dilemma of having to deal with new and old politics, the new economy and the old economy. In the new politics, he must present himself as a reform-minded, visionary leader. But he did not reveal any core ideological values. In the old politics, he is forced to cope with arithmetic. That's why he went for quick votes from the farmers in a controversial way by promising them a three-year debt moratorium.

"If 50,000 Thai families are relieved of their debt, it would cost the government only Bt50 billion," said a senior member of the Thai Rak Thai Party. "As you know, the government is going to throw in Bt300 billion-Bt400 billion to buy out bad debts from the Krung Thai Bank alone."

And that's why Thaksin has retained the notorious Snoh Thienthong faction. He needs to win votes in the November election, to ensure he gets many MPs on the party list, according to a new rule in the Constitution. The party that wins the most MPs will nominate its leader as prime minister.

Thaksin did not let this golden opportunity slip away. So the end justifies the means.

Thaksin managed to cope with the new economy, represented by his multibillion baht telecom empire, and the old economy. In his speech, he said he would categorise the Thai economy into "sunrise" and "sunset" industries. The sunrise industries would get support, while the sunset industries would be allowed to die a natural death.

Although he promised to get tough against corruption and drugs, he avoided tackling the hard economic issues. He did not say how he would resolve the bad debts in the banking sector, how he would finance the budget deficit to stimulate the economy or how he would pay off the Bt1.3 trillion debt of the Financial Institution Development Fund. If he could find money to tackle these three most important problems of Thailand, he would not have any money left to hand out to the farmers.

In a way, Thaksin looks upon himself as a bridge in the transformation from the remnants of the bubble economy to the new economy dominated by IT, communications, the Internet and satellites. But the new economy cannot be built from scratch. There is still a lot of work to do to clean up the house of the old economy, which still represents the biggest chunk of the Thai economy.

Well, let the Democrats do the dirty work in cleaning up the mess in the old economy. Thaksin can then step in when the path is cleared. In this scenario, he is hardly an alternative political leader.

BY Thanong Khanthong



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