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Thaksin makes inroads on Democrat turf

November 28, 2000

Telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra is seeking to win over the business and financial community, formerly the political stronghold of the Democrats, Thanong Khanthong reports.

Fresh from his successful meeting last week with Banthoon Lamsam, president of Thai Farmers Bank, Thai Rak Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra yesterday continued to seek support from the local business and financial community.

He realises that if he is to take on the premiership, he needs broad political support from the Bangkok-based businessmen and financiers who have faithfully backed the Democrats in the past.

Thaksin met Chatri Sophonpanich and other top executives of Bangkok Bank and got their endorsement. Chatri treated Thaksin to a red-carpet welcome and said he should be able to lead Thailand to an economic recovery. In saying so, Chatri implicitly made his disapproval of the Democrats known.

Earlier, Dhanin Chearavanont, the chieftain of the Charoen Pokphand Group, also issued his endorsement for Thaksin to be Thailand's next leader.

During the meeting with the Thaksin team last week, Banthoon also hinted at a broad feeling of political fatigue in a country looking for a wind of change to sweep away the chronic problems dragging it down. Although he did not endorse Thaksin openly, Banthoon, like Chatri, did not have any nice words for the Democrats.

Recently, Prapat Phothisuthon, the vice chairman of the Federation of Thai Industries, attacked the Democrat-led government over its failure to tackle the non-performing loans in the banking system or to prop up cash-strapped Thai industries.

In spite of his image as a big-time spender who has built up his party through political "mergers and acquisitions", as pointed out by social critic Thirayuth Boonmee, Thaksin is increasingly finding businessmen closing ranks behind him. Patience for the Democrats is running out.

Thirayuth has already predicted a big victory for Thaksin, who if he wins would bury Democrat leader Chuan Leekpai's dream of making a "hat trick" comeback as prime minister.

The political duel between Thaksin and Chuan looks almost like a zero-sum game. Any political gain by Thaksin is Chuan's loss. Mem-bers of the business and financial community which have backed him and Finance Minister Tarrin Nimmanahaeminda are having growing doubts about the Democrat leadership, which they believe, based on their own vested interests, cannot tackle the pressing economic problems. Tarrin has created a host of enemies with what is perceived as his inept handling of the banking system. It appears that the bankers at Bangkok Bank, Thai Farmers Bank and Bank of Ayudhya - the three remaining privately controlled banks - would like to get rid of the finance minister.

Although Thaksin may have a tough time winning the trust and confidence of foreign investors, he will be trying to build up domestic support first before working outward for broader support from the international community. "Foreign investors' confidence in Thaksin is zero [because of his populist programme to buy votes from the poor]," said a political analyst. "Look at the CNN interview; they just gave him a very tough time."

Tomorrow, Thaksin and Chuan will lead their economic teams to the Stock Exchange of Thailand to debate ways to salvage the Thai capital market. The Chuan government's record in tackling market problems is very poor. This duel will be interesting to watch, as it will prove whether Thaksin can further widen his support among the business and financial community.


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