Rising expectations leave voters impatient with shallow showmanship

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 August, 1996, 12:00am

The French are said not to care what you do as long as you pronounce it correctly; the Thais may be just as liberal - as long as you don't talk about it.

Thai governments have usually been riven with corruption. This 14-month-old Government's problem has been that from day one everyone has been talking about how sleazy it is.

A strong whiff of corruption was in the air even in the run-up to last summer's election when, by some estimates, about US$1 billion (HK$7.73 billion) was spent buying votes and candidates.

The result was a seven-party coalition stuffed with old-style money politicians desperate to recoup their election costs and more.

When the respected former premier Anand Panyarachun was shown the Cabinet lineup of what was to be a short-lived, military-dominated government in 1992 his reaction was: 'Ai-yaa!' There was a similar gasp of horror from the Thai public when the provincial machine politician Banharn Silpa-archa unveiled his Cabinet in July last year.

The seven-party coalition might have carried off their lacklustre image had it shown a modest amount of flair in running the country.

But in the face of a possibly tricky economic transition, a collapsing stock market and a serious, government-linked bank fraud, the coalition never really gained lift-off as an administration.

One key reason for this is that Mr Banharn has had precious little talent to inject into his Cabinet: last summer, he was forced to make his personal adviser, Surakiarat Sathirathai, the finance minister after failing to find a respectable banker willing to join this Government.

The hapless adviser was jettisoned a few months later when he appeared to become a political liability.

Many of the MPs in the House of Representatives are hard-nosed provincial vote catchers: good for dipping deep into the pork barrel for an extra road or two, not so good at developing policies to help the country climb up the ladder of technological sophistication.

Indeed Mr Banharn and the leaders of the myriad factions in the coalition have spent much of their time elbowing each other aside in a constant scramble for position.

Thai politics is not for the faint-hearted: many upper-class Thais would consider going into Parliament too degrading.

But, in the past 10 years, Thai voters have slowly raised their expectations at each election. The previous Democrat Party-led coalition, a paragon of expertise by comparison, fell out of favour because it was perceived to be indecisive.

This Government's unpopularity shows the Thai people are no longer prepared to sacrifice competence for mere showmanship.