Southeast Asia has weathered a tough year. In the Philippines, an impeachment trial is under way for President Joseph Estrada. Indonesian President Abdurraham Wahid is struggling to keep his country together. The region has entered "a protracted period of instability," warned Singapore-based DBS Bank in a recent report.
Amid this turbulence, many people are looking to Thailand's Jan. 6 parliamentary elections for signs that Southeast Asia is moving toward stability and consolidating democratic reforms.
"Because this election is held under such new and strict rules, people from all over are descending here to see whether this election will be clean, if it can be a harbinger of reform in the region," says Chris Baker, author of several books on Thai politics. More than 50 official observers from other Southeast Asian states came to Thailand to monitor and learn from the election.
The election will be the first to select a prime minister under the reformist, anticorruption Constitution put into effect three years ago. That document was designed to crack down on the vote-buying and graft that have plagued Thai politics in the past.
The Constitution laid the groundwork for laws passed in 1999 and 2000 that established a powerful Election Commission, with the authority to punish poll cheats and provide for independent ballot monitors, and strengthened the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), which investigates politicians' finances.
"The electoral reforms have quickly become a key part of politics, and are being looked at by other states around us," says Sunai Phasuk, a professor at Chulalongkorn University.
Already, the reforms have bitten into Thailand's political fabric. On Dec. 26, the nine-member NCCC took a bold step, ruling that leading prime ministerial candidate Thaksin Shinawatra had concealed his assets by transferring millions of dollars of stock to his household staff. If the decision is upheld by the Constitutional Court, Mr. Thaksin, a telecommunications tycoon and leader of the upstart Thai Rak Thai party, will be banned from politics for five years.
Despite the NCCC ruling, the party could still win the January vote and take the reins of government from the ruling Democrats. Its sophisticated use of flashy television commercials and sound-bite-oriented speeches has proven popular with Thai voters.
"There are other people in his [Thaksin's] party who could step up," says Mr. Baker. "And even in the event that he wins ... the process of reform will have advanced a lot."
The Election Commission, meanwhile, has already barred three other candidates from running for attempted vote-buying, and reportedly plans to disqualify as many as 100. "Rejecting poll cheats is shoring up the public's sagging confidence in the political system," said an editorial in the Nation daily.
"Especially in urban areas, people have tired of patronage politics," Baker adds. "In recent years, Bangkok voters pulled for independent candidates for governor as a sign they wanted anyone who would bring reform."
In one example of vote-buying, villagers collected evidence - including shampoo, detergent, and toothpaste that candidates had given to them - to turn over to the Election Commission.
Still, analysts say graft and intimidation are so ingrained here that they will be nearly impossible to stamp out, and they warn that reform efforts could result in a political backlash.
The Nakhon Ratchsima Rajabhat Institute, which studies election fraud, estimates some $460 million in bribes will be paid throughout the campaign and on election day.
The vote-buying takes many forms, it said, including cash handouts, free medical services, and trips. "Even today, outside of Bangkok, the best way to ensure victory is to pay cash for votes and to intimidate people," Professor Sunai says. Such threats are not all talk: 43 Thai politicians and canvassers have been murdered this year.
"I am not confident this election can be clean, though we will do what we can," says Election Commission member Gothom Arya.
Korn Dabaransi, the National Development Party candidate for prime minister, last week warned that stamping out intimidation and vote-buying might require revotes and bar so many candidates that the public may become fed up with the commission. He suggested that disqualifications could encourage "a break from democracy," a euphemism for a coup.
"It's not crucial that this election be perfect," Baker says. "But it's a beginning, and there is enough landmark change going on to keep people from abandoning this path, and to show that Thailand can be an example."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society