Thailand: An Election That May Just Make Matters Worse

It was a corrupt, violence-plagued campaign, and it didn't change much. Thailand's Nov. 17 election awarded a narrow victory to the New Aspiration Party of former Defense Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, a retired general who was a member of the outgoing coalition government. Now, Chavalit is likely to be named Prime Minister in a new, shaky coalition. But few expect him to address the country's most serious problems, from corruption to a decline in competitiveness. Under Chavalit, the economy "will just continue to be bad and get a little worse," says Paul Ensor, a research director at UBS (East Asia) Securities Ltd. in Hong Kong. "He's an old-style, patronage politician."

This political stagnation is dangerous for the health of the country, and it isn't going away soon. In fact, Thailand is headed for more political trouble, thanks to a widening gap between Bangkok and the countryside. Since Thailand's rapid development has centered mostly around the capital, huge inequalities have developed between a prosperous Bangkok and the hinterland. Now, with Thailand suffering like other Asian countries from slower growth, the tension has become even more pronounced. "We have two countries, existing side by side," says Chira Hongladarom, an economist at Thammasat University in Bangkok. "They have two political cultures, two contrasting visions."

PORK POWER. It's the rural culture that dominates politics, since villagers make up 55% of the population. They support their local patron in exchange for cash--as much as $20 a vote--and pork-barrel favors such as well-digging at the village level. Chavalit's power base is in the populous northeast, where average wages are one-fifth the level in Bangkok and per capita income about one-tenth. There, the New Aspiration Party demolished the more reform-minded Democrat Party, although it did so amid accusations of vote buying. In contrast, Chavalit is intensely disliked in Bangkok, which overwhelmingly supported the Democrats.

As chaotic growth makes life in Bangkok ever more difficult, its residents want more efficient government and the end of rule by political strongmen. These affluent Thais are disgusted with vote buying, even though the Democrats are accused of purchasing votes as well. Says Joy Taveesin, a 36-year-old manager of a small trading company in Bangkok who was educated in the U.S.: "Rural voters don't really know what democracy is."

Yet rural voters wonder when any of Bangkok's wealth will ever reach them. So they continue to back traditional patronage politics, which emphasizes a politician's clout and local political favors rather than parties and policies. And these voters are largely indifferent to any reforms that will improve economic and social conditions in Bangkok.

Constitutional reform may offer a partial solution to this dilemma. Reformers hope the ongoing rewriting of the constitution will change electoral procedures, making vote buying much harder. Such a change would reduce the politicians' dependency on rural constituencies and focus them on issues. Chavalit has pledged to support the efforts, and reformers believe that within two years he'll call for cleaner elections. "He has promised that there will be political reform," says Kriengsak Chareonwongsak, an economist and executive director of a Bangkok think tank. But getting his unruly coalition to go along may be difficult.

Even so, a new constitution won't erase the differences between prosperous Bangkok residents and their poor cousins in the countryside. A plan to spread development evenly throughout Thailand is desperately needed. Until then, the revolving door of Thai politics will continue to spin.

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