Slush fund for Thai poll set to soak up pounds 500m

Next month's election is likely to see unprecedented levels of corruption, writes Stephen Vines in Bangkok
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It is that time of the year when banks start scrambling around to get their hands on as many 100 baht (pounds 2.50) banknotes as possible, drinks manufacturers step up production and floral garland makers are in seventh heaven. In other words, it is election time, with Thais preparing to go the polls on 17 November.

Hardened cynics, a majority group among observers of Thai politics, have been taken aback by the level of intrigue and corruption surrounding the outgoing government of Prime Minister Banharn Silapa-Archa, an old-style provisional politician who was once known as Kuhn ATM, or Mr Automated Teller Machine.

His government was brought down following a no-confidence debate which, even by Thailand's undemanding standards, revealed a level of corruption and dishonesty that shocked most ordinary Thais.

The outlook for the coming election is so bad that Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire businessman leader of the newish Palang Dharma party, has decided not to run, because he believes that around pounds 500m is going to be paid out in bribes, double the amount of last year's election. He says that he wants no part of the money circus.

Mr Thaksin is probably rich enough to be beyond the petty and not so petty corruption which envelops government ministers desperate to recover their election costs during the short lives of elected governments.

A businessman closely involved in the customary pre-election deal-making and bargaining for office, is open about his financial support for the party leaders. "I am simply preserving my interests," he says.

He defends the system by saying: "Actually the country is run by the civil service and the armed forces, so all I'm doing is paying politicians to make sure that they don't screw up on things which affect my businesses. We're all doing the same thing. You could call it buying insurance."

Ideology plays no part in elections, nor are voters troubled by a choice of political programmes. When the three main contenders for the prime minister's post met for a televised US-style presidential- debate last Friday, they all pledged to do much the same things.

The public knows their pledges were largely meaningless. Members of parliament cannot even be trusted to stick with the parties who brought them to office, almost a third have switched allegiances in the coming election.

Every election brings calls for electoral reform but it is hard to break the vicious circle of vote-buying and subsequent payback time for the parliamentarians who have successfully bought the votes.

The one small hope in this election is that the Democrat Party, under the leadership of the rather modest and unassuming Chuan Leekpai, will win enough votes to bring in the kind of electoral reform which it promises to implement.

The problem is that the Democrats are hardly lily white themselves, a land-selling scandal helped bring down the Chuan government last year, after achieving a record by becoming the first elected administration to remain in office for almost three years.

Although the Democrats appear to be the most popular party, there is practically no possibility of winning a majority of seats in the new parliament.

This means that they would need to form a coalition and have to choose partners who are all, in varying degrees, corrupt, incompetent and likely to muddy the waters of government.

This could give the premiership to the consummate deal-maker - the immensely ambitious former armed forces commander-in-chief Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who will form a coalition with anyone at any time as long as he secures government leadership. General Chavalit will even take in some of the more notorious members of the Banharn administration whose activities lent a great deal of spice to the no-confidence debate.

A long shot, although long shots are not to be discounted in Thai politics, is a government led by another military man, Chatichai Choonhavan, whose government was overthrown in the bloody military coup of 1992. Even though the protesters on the streets wanted a restoration of elected government, none had a good word to say about his corrupt administration which was widely believed to have exhausted its shelf life.

When the military moved in to crush the 1992 democracy protests the parties who supported them were known as the "devil" parties, while their opponents were called the "angels".

Things are not so clear cut in this election. The Democrats may still be remembered as angels, but they are angels with tattered wings