By Larmer, Brook; Hail, John
During Thailand's economic crisis in 1997 and 1998, financial analysts in the region jokingly described the country as the "Thaitanic." In the run-up to last Saturday's national election, political wags were using the same doomed-ship analogy when talking about the brash politician Thaksin Shinawatra. Like the famous luxury liner, Thaksin and his newly built juggernaut, the Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai) Party, seemed impervious to failure. But now, just as his party has captured a stunning victory that would propel him to the nation's top post, Thais are starting to worry about their fate. It's not just that they wonder how Thaksin will pay for his unabashedly populist stimulus package, which includes everything from a three-year debt moratorium for farmers to a $23,000 gift to every village in Thailand. There's a more immediate concern: Thaksin may be legally barred from politics not long after taking office, leaving Thailand without a leader.
Thailand's current leader, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, was defeated in the Jan. 6 parliamentary elections. Thaksin's TRT Party routed Chuan's ruling Democrat Party. In fact, the Democrats conceded the election after three different exit polls showed the TRT winning a solid plurality in the 500-seat Parliament. "We are ready to be the opposition party," said Abhisit Vejajiva, deputy leader of the Democrat Party. At the weekend, press reports suggested that Thaksin would try to form a government with the parties of two former Thai prime ministers--Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party and Banharn Silpaarcha's Chart Thai Party. Neither left office on good terms. Banharn was removed by a parliamentary no-confidence vote in 1996. Chavalit resigned under pressure the following year during the economic crisis.
Thaksin's credibility has already suffered a serious gash. Two weeks before the election, he was indicted by the National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC) for allegedly hiding millions of dollars in assets. Thaksin, a 51-year-old telecommunications tycoon who proclaimed himself the prophet of clean politics, reportedly transferred more than $200 million worth of company stock to household employees--maids, servants, security guards--and then failed to report the transactions on a financial-disclosure form during his brief tenure as deputy prime minister in 1997. He told the commission that he'd simply forgotten about the transfers; later he pinned the blame on his wife and then on his secretary. Amusing? Perhaps. But if Thaksin goes down--the case will be decided within the next few months--Thailand could be thrown into turmoil.
This was supposed to be Thailand's moment of glory. The country hoped to show the world that it could form a clean, transparent government-- free of backroom deals and under-the-table payoffs. The election was the first to be held under strict new campaign laws, meant to be a model for the region. Under the new laws, several watchdog agencies now have the power to disqualify candidates, enforce spending limits and overturn tallies--even if there is only a suspicion of wrongdoing. "It's a good beginning," says Chaiwat Kamchoo, a political-science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, referring to the new anti-corruption agencies. But money politics, he says, "is deeply rooted in our culture. So it takes time to get rid of it."
That's for sure. Throughout Thailand, politics remains a venal and often violent undertaking. In the two months before the election, 18 party rivals and campaign workers were killed in gangland-style shoot- outs. Many candidates wore bulletproof vests for protection, along with their magic amulets. Vote buying was still rampant, even though the tough new laws forced it to become more discreet than the usual wad of bills clipped to campaign literature. (The going rate: about 500 baht, or $12, a vote.) Before the election, the election commission kicked out three of the 3,722 parliamentary candidates for trying to buy votes, including one who was handing out clocks embossed with his photo. …