Thai Democrats Build on Mandate

Victors in national elections seek a palatable partner among the pro-military parties

THAILAND'S pro-democracy parties, given a mandate this week to form a new government, now face the task of reforming a political system based on monetary and military patronage. These parties have rarely held the reins of national government except as coalition partners within a pro-military government.

As the leader of the Democrat Party, which won the most parliamentary seats in Sunday's vote, and now de facto head of the pro-democracy coalition of four parties, Chuan Leekpai is expected to be nominated the country's next prime minister when Parliament reconvenes next week.

The formation of a Cabinet may take weeks of negotiations among the coalition members. One more party is expected to be added to give the government greater stability.

Which of the so-called "satanic" parties should be invited to join the coalition of victorious "angelic" parties remains a controversial issue, revolving around calculations of the benefits of numerical strength versus the political baggage each of the parties bring in tow.

"The verdict of the people was quite clear; they don't want any more military dictatorship," said Bowornsak Uwanno, a politically active law professor at Chulalongkorn University, who like most analysts polled, was generally pleased with the election results.

Although there were hundreds of electoral violations reported, the main government-supported election-monitoring organization, Poll Watch, won widespread praise for making this the cleanest election in memory and likely setting new standards.

But many analysts noted the narrow margin of victory for pro-democracy parties.

By themselves the pro-democracy parties command only a thin majority of 185 seats in the 360-member House, and the Democrat Party's lead would have been eclipsed by a pro-military party had there not been a recent split in the pro-military camp.

Candidates from the Democrat Party exceeded even their own strategists' expectations, winning 79 House seats. The generally pro-military Chart Thai Party was not far behind with 77 seats.

Coming in third place was the newly formed Chart Pattana (National Development party) with 60 seats. Chart Pattana is led by former Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, who previously led Chart Thai.

In a not-uncommon move for Thai politicians, Mr. Chatichai left Chart Thai and formed the new party, hoping to disassociate himself from Chart Thai's support of Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, who resigned the premiership in disgrace after a bloody crackdown against pro-democracy student protesters in May.

Chatichai was himself overthrown by General Suchinda in February 1991 and until recently maintained a low profile.

Chart Pattana members "are basically the same group and that is a little bit frightening because that means that a majority of the Thai people are still holding onto the traditional [patron-client] world view [of politics]," says Dr. Akin Rabibhadana, an academic studying socio-political trends at a private think tank in Bangkok.

The election results, he says, generally reflect a split between rural and urban voters with the latter putting a premium on a clean, more accountable government rather than on old-style patronage.

Continued economic growth - and the associated emphasis on more education, wider media reach, and the demands of commerce - would eventually help to narrow this gap, at least in the larger provincial cities where the former opposition parties posted stronger performances than ever before, analysts say.

A few initial steps undertaken by the administration of interim Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun to decentralize bureaucratic power from the capital to local communities may encourage this budding democratization.

At the same time, the new political environment under elected representatives is expected to trigger a range of political demands that have been on hold for the last year and a half during imposed governments.

Economic policy is one issue area that is expected to prompt renewed debate.

Mr. Chuan has vowed to follow the economic liberalization policies set in place by the two administrations of Prime Minister Anand, who is generally regarded as pro-business.

Chuan's victory was welcomed by the business community, a mood reflected in new buoyancy in the local stock exchange.

But many economists argue that the country needs to address the rural-urban split by adjusting its economic policy.

"The biggest challenge [for the new government] will be finding a balance between maintaining high growth and having better distribution of income," says Teeranat Karnjanauksorn, a political economist at Chulalongkorn University. "The problem is it is very difficult to have the two together. There has to be some trade-off."

Another challenge is to try to institute greater transparency in the government and the bureaucracy and more accountability among members of Parliament. By his own conduct in office, Anand set new standards in this regard, but according to critics, including Dr. Bowornsak, he failed to institute critical measures that would have enshrined these standards in law.

Chuan, the probable prime minister, is a nine-term veteran legislator from a southern province who has previously served as minister of agriculture, commerce, education, and health.

Unlike most figures in Thai politics Chuan is not a former military officer and has managed during 24 years of often sullied Thai politics to avoid major scandals.

His image as a compromiser has also won him favor among the electorate, and despite his support of recent military reforms, he is regarded as acceptable to Thailand's monarch and the present military leadership.

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