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Thailand’s general election takes place this Sunday. As a non-citizen, I can’t vote. When the election was announced, I thought that was a shame, since for the first time in my life I have an interest in politics. Back home in Britain, I did vote, but was fairly apathetic about it.But as the election and its major players started to take shape, I started to think that even if I could vote, I would no longer be able to do so with conviction. That’s not because the campaigning has been so strong that it would be hard to pick which candidate would be best. Far from it. Now, it would be more a case of choosing the lesser evil.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the major contenders – with “con” being the operative syllable.
DEMOCRAT PARTY – ABHISIT VEJJAJIVA
Abhisit is the incumbent Prime Minister and head of the Democrat Party, which leads the coalition government installed by parliamentary vote in December 2008.
Young, photogenic, Oxford-educated and multilingual, Abhisit’s arrival as PM was largely hailed at the time. He was more charismatic than his immediate – and immediately forgettable – predecessor Somchai Wongsawat, more media-friendly than the cranky Samak Sundaravej, who came before Somchai, and stepped into office with a corruption-free reputation. The latter point was a feather in the cap of the Democrats’ supporters and/or the opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at the time was only a few months into his self-imposed exile which followed a corruption conviction.
Abhisit was lauded as the first Thai premier to take office without any corruption stains on his copybook. But it speaks volumes of the state of Thai politics that a country’s leader should be celebrated for something many nations would take as a prerequisite of leadership
Despite all the high-level international education, clean reputation and good looks, the evidence of Abhisit’s premiership all points to someone sorely lacking in ability to effectively govern a country and its people.
The biggest example of this, of course, is last year’s Red Shirt anti-government protests which ran for a protracted two months and culminated in the riots which saw iconic buildings across Bangkok torched and Thailand hitting the front pages and news bulletins of mass media worldwide for about the worst possible reasons one could imagine for a country which prides and promotes itself as a safe, friendly tourism destination.
And more important than that distressing imagery was the death toll – 92 people were confirmed killed in the protests (not counting those who remain “missing”), most of them civilians. For sure, most of those deaths could have been avoided. It doesn’t matter what your political stance is, nor does it matter what you think of the Red Shirts and their actions. That the Prime Minister bungled the handling of the crisis to such a degree that almost a hundred people were killed would have led to his resignation in almost any civilised country.
I’m not saying Abhisit was wrong to break up the protests. After all, parts of the city were being held to ransom and innocent people’s daily lives were being affected. But if he’d taken decisive action much earlier, the outcome wouldn’t have been nearly so bad. Sure, it would have been an unpopular move with some, but in trying not to upset people he came across as weak, emboldened the protesters, and ultimately presided over a disaster.
That he didn’t step down counts against him. That he has refused to apologise counts against him. His idiotic attempts to look like a common man on the campaign trail by planting rice in a tailored white shirt count against him. His buffoon of a deputy, Suthep Thaugsuban, with his comments that he “doesn’t trust foreigners” when rejecting a UN investigation into the protests and then saying the army didn’t kill anybody at the rallies but “the protesters ran in front of the bullets” counts against him, and the Democrat Party as a whole, big time.
PHEU THAI - YINGLUCK SHINAWATRA
A lot of people will vote Democrat simply because they don’t like Thaksin Shinawatra. On the other hand, a lot of people will vote for Pheu Thai simply because they DO like him. He’s the most divisive figure in Thai politics. People either love him or hate him. He’s either Satan or a saviour. There’s no middle sentiment.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, those who love Thaksin make up the majority of the Thai population, which has been borne out by Thaksin-helmed parties winning by a landslide in the past two elections. But the fact he was deposed in a coup, and that his following proxy government was overthrown by the Yellow Shirts in 2008, shows that popular sentiment is hardly the decisive factor when it comes to choosing governments and leaders.
Unfortunately for Thaksin’s supporters, not only is he unable to become the next prime minister, but he can’t even return to Thailand without being jailed. He fled the country in 2008, after which a two-year prison sentence was handed to him in absentia for corruption offences. If he returns, he will have to serve the jail term.
But that’s not to say he’s not involved in Thailand’s affairs. Far from it. Just look at the family name of prime ministerial candidate of the party he leads in all but official status. That’s right – Yingluck Shinawatra is Thaksin’s sister.
Now, I know nepotism is a big part of business and politics in Thailand, but this is ridiculous. Thaksin isn’t even trying to pretend Pheu Thai’s No.1 is there on merit or that he isn’t really the boss. Pheu Thai have said that if they form the next government, they will push for an amnesty for anyone convicted of political offences in the past five years. It’s clear who that refers to, although Yingluck has said the party is not about one person. Sorry, dear, but when you carry the Shinawatra name and are proposing a bill that will enable the most famous Shinawatra to plot a route back to power, I’m not buying that.
But in the bigger picture, it’s not necessary to hide this ambition. As said, most Thaksin supporters will vote Pheu Thai anyway, and his staunchest supporters will absolutely vote Pheu Thai if the stated policy is to bring him back, so an overt strategy along those lines won’t hurt. On the other hand, Thaksin’s opponents won’t vote Pheu Thai no matter what, due to the party’s association with him, so there’s nothing to lose with them by stating a “bring Thaksin home” agenda.
What bothers me, though, is not Thaksin or the goal of bringing him back. Of course he’s corrupt and of course his actions as a politician have been self-serving, but he’s far from alone in those two considerations and his actions have made a tangible difference to a lot of people. He was also elected – twice, and by a large majority – in fair polls. So him being the figurehead of the Pheu Thai campaign is fine.
But large numbers of Thaksin’s support base fought – and I mean literally fought – for him last year, with the Red Shirts pushing for elections (Abhisit was voted in by the parliament, not the public, after Thaksin’s previous political incarnation, the People Power Party, was dissolved). Dozens of them died and hundreds were injured. Ostensibly they did so in the name of democracy, but Thaksin formed the spine of the movement. You could say, without melodrama, that many of the Red Shirts who were killed died for him, or at least for what he represented. So for Thaksin to then put his sister – a formidable businesswomen, no doubt, but utterly inexperienced in politics – in the Pheu Thai driving seat instead of the real politicians who fronted the Red Shirt campaign is tantamount to a kick in the balls for those who risked – and gave – their lives in last year’s pro-Thaksin rallies.
RAK PRATHET THAI - CHUWIT KAMOLVISIT
So, one candidate is incapable but heads the Democrat Party because he looks good and speaks well. Another has zero political experience but is in Pheu Thai’s top spot because of nepotism. What else can we add to the mix that so far includes superficiality and cronyism? How about hypocrisy?
I know just the man…
Chuwit’s election posters are the most eye-catching, after the Yellow Shirt animals (we’ll come to that next). He’s the guy frowning, scowling, growling and otherwise exasperating all over town. His fans like him because he’s a straight-talker and he’s not afraid to put the odd nose out of joint. His big ticket is that he wants to eradicate corruption, both in business and politics. Corruption makes Chuwit angry, and there’s a lot of corruption in Thailand, so there are a lot of posters around Thailand of Chuwit looking angry.
In fact, there are only two things that make Chuwit smile – dogs and women.
There’s something else Chuwit can offer you which dogs are also famous for: casual sex.
This is also why women are the only other thing which can make him smile. Chuwit, you see, is a pimp. Or at least he used to be. He still has a “managerial interest” in certain “entertainment establishments”. They are advertised as massage parlours, but everyone knows what kind of “massage” is on offer, and Chuwit doesn’t deny this. He used to, but then eventually he confessed when he decided to launch his campaign against corruption. He had to confess because he went public with the amounts of bribes he would pay – and who he would pay them to – in order for his businesses to remain free of police inspection. But in 2003 he was arrested anyway, so he blew the whistle on the police officers who had taken his bribes.
In other words, he is fighting corruption because corruption didn’t work for him. If he’d never been arrested, then corruption would still be getting the thumbs up from Chuwit Kamolvisit.
PEOPLE’S ALLIANCE FOR DEMOCRACY – VOTE NO
Don’t like the man who presided over 92 deaths? Don’t like the man who thumbed his nose at the 92 victims by appointing his sister to lead his party? Don’t like the massage parlour baron who’s laughably fighting corruption? Then why not “Vote No”, as the Yellow Shirts are imploring you?
The yellow posters of various animals in suits encouraging the no-vote are designed to evoke the negative qualities of politicians. There’s the lizard (slippery), buffalo (stupid), dog (aggressive), monkey (selfish), and so on.
But the no-vote is a bit different to abstaining or spoiling your ballot. The Thai ballot paper has a box to ”Vote No”, the equivalent of “none of the above”, and this will be recorded as an actual vote and the percentage of no-votes an official election statistic.
However, this won’t affect the final result. Even if the overall majority votes no, the next government will still be based on the total votes for candidates. So what is the point of this campaign, you might ask.
Back in 2008, when the Yellow Shirts rallied to overthrow the Samak administration – and succeeded – they answered questions as to why they were protesting against a democratically elected government by saying democracy itself was flawed. They did not believe the “one vote for one person” system worked. They said that having Thaksin or Thaksin-aligned politicians in government was proof of this, because if people were using their vote wisely, this wouldn’t happen.
Distastefully, they proposed a merit-based voting system, in that the value of a vote was based on someone’s class, level of education and place of residence. If you were middle class or above, educated to degree level and urban-based, preferably in Bangkok, you’d get a full vote, whereas your opinion would be deemed less valuable the further away from those attributes you were. If you were a rural member of the working classes who hadn’t gone beyond high school, your vote would be least important. Which was all very convenient, considering that demographic makes up the majority in Thailand, and that the majority voted for Thaksin.
So the logic now is that if enough people vote no, the Yellow Shirts’ stance that the current political system is flawed will be validated. They would not win any seats, but they could point to the results and say that the public agrees with them, and therefore it’s time to overhaul the current form of democracy.
Just one problem with that, though. By pushing this stance through the existing “one person, one vote” system, the Yellows can’t win. If they fail to encourage enough no-votes, then they can’t push for electoral reform as a result. But if the campaign does attract significant support, then isn’t that result flawed by their very own definition of what’s wrong with the voting system? You can’t say the voters aren’t intelligent enough to vote wisely, and then change your mind if the vote falls the way you want it to. Although that is exactly what I expect they would do…
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