Thailand's new premier could face rough road ahead. Chatichai must please military and six parties of his coalition

Thailand has hopped on a global trend toward democracy with the graceful exit of a unelected prime minister in favor of an elected one. This was made easier by a fast-growing economy, by the King's blessing, and by a military fed up with its own legacy of coups. But the future for the new government under businessman-politican Chatichai Choonhaven is far from settled.

Even Mr. Chatichai, the elected member of Parliament who now heads up a patchwork six-party coalition formed last week, hinted at his shaky prospects. ``I think we are heading down a more democratic road,'' he said after being approved by the King. But he added, ``The country has to learn to walk before it can run.''

The all-important horse-trading for Cabinet posts by the coalition's partners has yet to be wrapped up. The parties set Aug. 12 as their deadline for a compromise.

Lingering splits over Cabinet selections from the 1986 election helped precipitate the collapse of the last coalition, leading to the July 24 parliamentary elections.

In the country's nascent democracy, politicians who often buy votes rather than earning them with public service expect a return on their investments - a high-level job in a ministry. Total spending by the candidates in the latest campaign is estimated at over $100 million.

The resulting corruption, according to Western diplomats and academic observers, is Thailand's Catch-22: Why give politicians more power if they abuse it, but how will they stop abusing it unless they are given more responsibility for running the nation as legitimate politicians?

Parliament, up to now, has been treated as the nation's fourth estate, after the military, the monarchy, and an entrenched elite bureaucracy. As a result, rich businessmen largely dominate the fifteen political parties, competing for Cabinet posts.

Outgoing Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda has been credited with wisely trying to move Thailand out of this trap. But after eight years, three elections, and two coup attempts, he called its quits, surprising most observers.

``He's like a popular boxer who hangs up the gloves while remaining champion,'' wrote former Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj in the Siam Rath newspaper.

Mr. Prem, a reluctant prime minister and a former general, never ran for Parliament. He was the country's longest serving prime minister - but only as a compromise choice of political parties, none of whom could win a majority of parliamentary seats.

Half a democracy was better than the military rule of the past, and Prem was a fleet-footed human fulcrum setting the balance between the Army and civilians.

After bringing political stability that helped create an economy growing at more than eight percent this year, the soft-spoken Prem bowed out in style.

But in his farewell speech he dwelled on the blatant gap between Bangkok's wealth and rural poverty, implying concern about the new government's orientation.

Chatichai's party, Chat Thai (Thai Nation), holds an unfavorable image as allegedly being made up of big business interests. It won the most seats, 87 of 357, in Parliament's lower house.

Prem's subtle warning was confirmed by Chatichai's first policy statement criticizing the most powerful body of economic technocrats, the national economic and social development board, which has tried to temper the influence of big industrialists.

An advocate of trading with Vietnam, Chatichai is also expected to alter Thailand's hardline anti-Hanoi foreign policy. The three allied Indochinese countries, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, should be ``economic markets not battlefields,'' he said.

But a more serious concern is whether Chatichai can equal Prem's grip on the military.

Chatichai left the Army 30 years ago after becoming a major general, and later served as ambassador and as a minister in various governments, including as one of Prem's deputies. His first test comes in September, when the military reshuffles the top brass and when Army commander Gen. Chavolit Yongchaiyuth may retire.

The military, having quietly supported the election, nonetheless waits to see if the politicians can act ``responsibly.'' General Chavolit has requested that Chatichai serve as premier and defense minister, perhaps to keep the military spot warm for Chavolit until he becomes a civilian. This, according to Western diplomats, might allow Chavolit to maneuver into the premiership.

Skeptics give the Chatichai government three to six months to last. But the thought of another exhausting campaign may dissuade an early challenge to Chatichai.

In his Aug. 1 address to Parliament, the King told members of the house to ``remember the importance and responsibility'' of their duties. That unusual admonition, plus a watchdog press and politicized middle class, may keep the new government - and democracy - on course.

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