Sleaze on top in Thailand's dirty poll

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The Independent Online
In a flurry of unprecedented vote-buying, violence and an ugly and far from typical burst of anti-Chinese racism, Thai voters yesterday appeared to have given their mandate to the former army commander who is believed to have been the driving force behind the most dirty election in two decades.

Although he is unlikely to command an overall majority, General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh may get the chance he has long waited for to become prime minister, as the Thai system gives the party with the highest number of votes the right to head the government.

The stakes were especially high in this election, as constitutional changes will soon end a system which has resulted in a change of government almost every year. This is bad news for politicians like General Chavalit and his New Aspiration Party; they encourage swapping of political allegiances and other practices which have engendered such cynicism about politicians among the voters.

However, the Thai electoral heartland is in the countryside where knowledge of political manoeuvring is limited. In the capital, Bangkok, General Chavalit's party and its allies received very little support.

The Bangkok polls were swept by the Democratic Party, led by Chuan Leekpai, a former prime minister who is committed to political reform and a great deal less corrupt than his main rival.

Because the election has failed to produce a clear winner, the midnight oil was burning last night while the power brokers of Thai politics busily made deals to forge a coalition capable of commanding a parliamentary majority. Even if General Chavalit's party turns out to have won the greatest number of seats, it will not be enough to govern alone. The horse-trading may last weeks.

Much depends on another former prime minister, Chati- chai Choonhavan, whose Chart Pattana party won enough seats to make or break a majority government. Mr Chatichai pre-sided over the economic boom of the late 1980s before being overthrown in the military coup of 1991. At the time, his departure was not much lamented because his government was mired in corruption scandals.

But the outgoing government of Banharn Slipa-archa has raised the level of scandal to new and dizzying heights, making Mr Chatichai seem not too bad in comparison.

Reports have been flooding in from the poor north-eastern provinces about vote-buying and unprecedented intimidation. The Thai Farmers Bank estimated that 20bn baht (pounds 520m) was paid out to voters in electoral bribes. Banks reported a severe shortage of 100 baht (pounds 2.50) notes - the usual payment for a vote.

General Chavalit has a strong grip on the electorate in the north-east. In the course of the election campaign, he built alliances with a host of politicians defecting from the outgoing Banharn government - most of them closely linked to the scandals responsible for its downfall.

Mr Chuan's party is not free of corrupt alliances, but he himself is viewed as "clean" and appears to have eschewed the habit of vote-buying.

However, the Democrats have been accused of dirtying their hands with anti-Chinese racism, an alarming development for South-East Asia's highly assimilated Chinese community. As Mr Chuan himself looks distinctly Chinese, and Sino-Thais are prominent in the party, the accusation seems paradoxical. But the re-emergence of racism in Thai politics has taken many observers by surprise. Although the leading contenders for the prime minister's post participated in US-style presidential television debates for the first time, it is hard to spot the real ideological difference between parties.

The only difference is in integrity. The influential Bangkok business community has largely backed Mr Chuan because he is seen as capable of leading a less corrupt and more business-like government.

Among the rural population, questions of integrity mean little. Voters there have little contact with the political manoeuv- ring in the capital. Some politicians who are regarded as sleazy in Bangkok are seen as helpful and generous leaders in their rural constituencies.