Money talks as Thais vote in the 'cash dispenser'

The people of Thailand have chosen Banharn Sipla-archa, the man they call Khun ATM, or Mr Cash Dispenser, as their next Prime Minister.

As final results were being counted in the election yesterday, it became clear that one of the country's best-known practitioners of money politics would be able to form a six-party coalition with a firm majority in the new parliament.

Mr Banharn counts among the leading members of his Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party a potential cabinet member banned from admission to the United States on suspicion of drug smuggling and another, nominated in 1992 as Prime Minister, who is under the same ban but failed to get elected in Sunday's poll.

No one really knows how much money changed hands in this election, although it was enough to create a severe cash shortage in the banks. A prominent Chart Thai supporter was caught red-handed in a house stacked high with small-denomination bills.

Mr Banharn stormed home in the rural areas of north and central Thailand, whose people feel obliged to vote for anyone whose money they have accepted, but in Bangkok, where money politics is far less of a factor, Chart Thai failed to win a seat.

Mr Banharn replaces the uncharismatic but sincere Chuan Leekpai, who, although he was Prime Minister for a mere three years, headed Thailand's longest-serving democratically elected government. His dilemma and his personality are uncannily similar to that of John Major. Like Mr Major, he called a snap election to end squabbling in his cabinet, though he opted to go to the country rather than hold a leadership election.

Mr Chuan gambled that Thailand would opt for continuity and provide him with a new mandate to plough ahead with his slow but steady policy of economic and constitutional reforms.

Mr Chuan is no fool, but he underestimated the abiding power of pork- barrel politics. When he took over three years ago, it was in the aftermath of a military crackdown and a massacre of democracy protesters which threatened to plunge the country back into the days of corrupt and authoritarian military rule. Mr Chuan came in at the head of a coalition of "angel" parties which had supported the democracy movement, defeating the "devil" parties identified with the military.

The depths of cynicism in Thailand's ideology-free political system were displayed yesterday when the Palang Dharma (Buddhist Force) party, which had been at the forefront of the democracy movement, agreed to join Mr Banharn's government, mainly composed of the "devil" party alliance.

Palang Dharma was formed by Chamlong Srimuang, the ascetic and immensely charismatic former mayor of Bangkok, but his authoritarian manner slowly alienated nearly everyone around him and he ceded the party leadership to Thaksin Shinawatra, one of Thailand's best-known tycoons.

Other coalition members include the New Aspiration Party, led by the former army chief, Chavalit Yongchaiyudh.

Even by the undemanding standards of Thai politics, Mr Chavalit's party set a new low by making it clear before the election that it would join any governing coalition, at any time, regardless of its policies.

Yesterday Mr Banharn told a press conference that his government would continue with the good policies of the outgoing government and abandon those which were bad.

He was unable to say which policies fell into either category. The Prime Minister's problems with detail were also on view in a television debate during the election, in which Mr Chuan scored a technical knockout. Mr Banharn was unable to name a single potential cabinet member or identify any policy which would distinguish his party from the ruling Democrat Party.

In practice, most policy making in Thailand is performed by the surprisingly well run and often diligent civil service, which provides a certain continuity amid frequent political upheavals.

Mr Banharn indicated yesterday that he may bring some of the unelected bureaucrats into his government.