August 17, 2001
At the end of a campaign stop, Chuan Leekpai, Banharn Silapaarcha and Thaksin Shinawatra were each asked how they managed to differentiate which political funds went to their parties and which to a spirit house. The legalminded Chuan of the Democrat Party said he went by the accounting book. Any money properly documented would go to his party and the rest would go to the spirit house.
Chat Thai’s Banharn said his method was simple enough. He would draw a circle around the spirit house. Then he would throw the money up into the air. Any money that fell within the circle would belong to the spirit house, and the rest outside the circle would be his. Moreover, he reserved the right to draw the circle by himself.
Thaksin said his method was even simpler. He would throw money up into the air so that the spirit house could take any money it could grab. The rest belonged to him.
Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the former foreign minister, told this political joke on Wednesday night at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and drew big applause from his audience. The joke conveniently summed up the characters of the three political leaders. Of course, Thaksin took a swipe for his winnertakeall attitude.
Aside from telling political jokes, what more could Surin and two of his colleagues – Abhisit Vejjajiva and Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda – say or do in their thankless job as opposition MPs? But the three musketeers managed to raise a number of interesting points, if not some disturbing trends, for foreign correspondents, most of whom are still big fans of theirs.
From Abhisit’s point of view, Thaksin and his landslide political victory was a product of the political reform process that had been made possible by the new Constitution, which came into being in 1997. It was the intention of the authors of the Constitution to move the political system towards consolidation and a checksandbalances structure.
On a positive note, through mergers and acquisitions, Thaksin has succeeded in consolidating the political party system through his Thai Rak Thai Party, thereby drastically altering the political landscape of Thailand. With majority control of Parliament, he has a unique opportunity to lead the way. Whether Thaksin is setting his sights at pushing Thailand towards a two party system – with the Democrats as the only other rival party, of course – remains to be seen.
But that is the only positive side Abhisit, the political star of the Democrats, can see about Thaksin, who is still struggling to match his political leadership with the election result. When Thaksin started on the campaign trail, he declared war against corruption, against drugs, and against poverty. But it appears that he is losing the war on all three fronts, without any clear accomplishments.
Moreover, questions have been raised about the role of the independent bodies created by the Constitution as a checks and balances system. Events surrounding the Election Commission, the telecom regulatory body, the National Counter Corruption Commission and the Constitution Court have also created doubts about their effectiveness in acting as mechanisms to ensure the democratic principles of accountability and transparency.
Tarrin focused his criticism of the Thaksin government on three key points. First, could it sustain the Thai economic recovery? Second, what is the longterm macroeconomic outlook for the country? And third, how is the reform process going? On the first point, there is a growing concern that the government might fail to meet its economic growth target of 2 to 2.5 per cent. In the first quarter of this year, growth slowed to 1.8 per cent. So if the target is to be achieved, the growth rate in the second and third quarters must be substantially higher than 1.8 per cent to average it out.
In macroeconomics, there has been anxiety or grave concern over the government’s fiscal policy, which embraces the spirit of populism without adequate prudence about the longterm consequences. Tarrin warned that if the government’s handout programmes fail to deliver results, they would backfire. The financial markets will punish Thailand – through the exchange rates or the stock market, for instance – until the mistakes are corrected.
Tarrin said that, in his understanding, populism seeks to reallocate resources by taxing the rich to get the money to give to the poor. But since Thaksin is presiding over his populist programme without taxing the rich, he is spending “the grandchildren’s money”. He said: “Once you get to a certain level of public debt, the market will start to punish you.”
Although the government has pledged to balance its spending by 2006 and keep public debt at 60 per cent of the gross domestic product, Tarrin did not believe that it would be able to do so, especially since the offbalancesheet debt the government is creating through borrowing from the People’s Bank or the Government Savings Bank or the Krung Thai Bank or the Financial Institutions Development Fund is not accounted for at present.
When it comes to the reform process, it is apparent that the government has reached a dead end. The Thai Asset Management Corporation, which is to buy out some Bt1.2 trillion in bad debts, is not going to make a big difference without an accompanying painful corporate restructuring. Yet most insolvent Thai companies are refusing to die of natural causes. They still hang on, hoping to be given a new lease on life by an economic recovery and favourable debt terms. That will never come about.
Surin took on the foreign policy of the Thaksin government, which he criticises as embracing a bilateral approach at the expense of the multilateral framework Thailand has built its strength on over the past years. He said the government is running its foreign policy with a focus on trade, commerce, benefits and bilateral relations, without taking into account Thailand’s overall standing in the global community.
The three musketeers have fired their shots. The government may want to listen or choose to ignore the criticism. But the first six months of the Thaksin government show that it is still struggling to get its act together, to match its style with substance.