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Afraid of the future, voters look backwards

August 4, 2000

It took the whole country five elections before it could produce a full Senate of 200 members, the first class of elected senators under the new Constitution. This was nothing but an expression of self-parody at a national level. 

Then Bangkokians had a chance to vote for their governor. Another self-parody was showcased, this time to an hysterical extreme. More than one million votes were cast for Samak Sundaravej, making him the most popular Bangkok governor ever, at least at the polls. Samak is a veteran politician, whose ideology belongs to the age of Jurassic Park.

The whole episode, unfortunately, implies that the majority Thais are backing off from reform.


These elections make it quite easy to fathom the present Thai psyche. Confused about the present and uncertain about the future, Thais are reverting to a sure thing, clinging fast to a relic of their past, even back to the Dark Ages. By voting for Samak, Bangkokians, who are supposed to be the most educated segment of the Thai population, held themselves up to ridicule, for those who hated Samak also voted for him. This was politically unnatural.

But this unnatural phenomenon did not take place in a vacuum. Bangkokians were apparently getting bored with the Democrats. Three years into the economic crisis, the Democrats have failed to produce a quick fix. Bangkokians appreciated the financial and economic reform efforts of the Democrats, but they did not think that things would improve under this party. They could not wait to kick them out before the end of their official term.

As well, Bangkokians did not trust Sudarat Keyuraphand of the Thai Rak Thai Party. She campaigned vigorously - to the point of falling on her knees to beg for votes - on a "think anew, act new" platform. As we saw, this was Sudarat's big mistake. 

Bangkokians did not want new thinking nor did they need any new actions. They just wanted someone whom they could rely on in this time of uncertainty. It was similar to a situation in which you are compelled to call your regular plumber to fix your tap, even though the guy has, more often than not, driven you crazy with his arrogance.

The whole episode, unfortunately, implies that the majority Thais are backing off from reform. They no longer want to tolerate the pain. They don't trust new ideas. They just want to hang onto what they have, no matter how slippery things are. Going forward, this sentiment will weigh down on the country's ability to drag itself out of the economic crisis.

The present weakness in sentiment can also be explained by political uncertainty. Who will form the next government? 

Foreigners are particularly getting nervous, so they have bailed out of Thailand at any price since the beginning of the year. They have a great deal of sympathy for what the Democrats have done for the country. 

Most of them believe that the country has been on the right track in mending its economic problems.

But too bad the foreigners are managing money for their clients. Investing in Thailand is not producing the same kind of returns as elsewhere. Banking and corporate restructuring is slower than expected. And foreigners are sensing a defeat of the Democrats in the upcoming election. Moreover, they aren't sure whether the new government will back away from the financial and economic reforms painfully implemented over the past three difficult years. Trouble is brewing ahead for Thailand over the looming leadership crisis. The Pak Mool Dam demonstrations, which have had a spill-over effect, have further aggravated the political divide. 

Telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai Party has not been a big help. In fact, the party has scared off investors with its populist agenda. If elected, it will declare a debt moratorium on behalf of Thai farmers. Instead of promising a credible fix of the Thai economy within a specific timeframe, the party has gone overboard to solicit votes from the masses.

How will Thai politics unfold? At least there is a specific timeframe for the political uncertainty to unravel itself. For better or for worse, it is the democratic system that Thais have elected to adopt. While the country is living dangerously, it looks as if Thais are looking inward and are willing to test their nerves to the limit.


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