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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 7, 2007
Page 1 of 3
The choice of a new generation in Thailand
By Shawn W Crispin

BANGKOK - Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva says that he and his party represent a "new generation" of political leadership, the electoral choice to break with the bad old ways of Thailand's often corrupt political past. The question now looming over the country's December 23 democratic polls is whether the Thai electorate believes that the 43-year-old career politician who first entered politics in 1992 has finally come of age to lead.

The Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, have not won a

democratic election since 1993. The conservative party is, according to some public opinion polls, once again lagging behind their main People's Power Party (PPP) rival, the new incarnation of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's recently disbanded Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, which trumped the Democrats at both the 2001 and 2005 polls.

The populist TRT successfully campaigned in 2001 on the notion that the Democrat's neo-liberal policies and technocratic tendencies often put foreign investor interests above those of the grass roots population. This election, the PPP is equating a vote for the Democrats as a vote for the military coup-makers that ousted Thaksin in a 2006 putsch.

Abhisit rejects that charge, saying that he was among the first politicians to condemn the coup, but does acknowledge that the Democrats have in the past been outmaneuvered by TRT. This time, however, it could be the Democrats’ turn for some tricky electoral maneuvers, with some political insiders predicting that the party has already secured the allegiance of the two main middle-sized parties - Chart Thai and Pua Pandin - whose numbers will be crucial to forming the next coalition government.

Two years into his tenure as party leader, the Oxford-educated Abhisit says that the Democrats have with an infusion of new blood changed their old ways. Abhisit himself fields questions from voters over the Democrat's website, designed to appeal to the 20-something set. More importantly, he says the party under his leadership is more grass roots-focused, exemplified by the party's new "People's Agenda" policy platform. At the same time he takes issue with any notion that the Democrats have taken their own populist turn just to win votes, saying the Democrats' grass roots policies, unlike their rivals, are designed in a way that won't stretch the national finances.

Abhisit's campaign message has resonated strongly with the foreign investment community, in particular his pledge to roll back the capital controls put in place last year by the outgoing military-appointed government. He tells Asia Times Online that a Democrat Party-led administration would also consider a change at the top of the Bank of Thailand, viewed by many investors as the main motivator for the country's recent lurch towards more protectionism.

Still, there are lingering questions about whether Abhisit, known for his eloquent and trenchant delivery in the opposition during no-confidence debates, has sufficient experience or stature to lead and hold together a broad-based coalition government - especially one comprised of competitive political factions. Political infighting caused at least two Thai governments to collapse during the 1990s, and some political analysts are already predicting that the next government - regardless if its led by the Democrats or PPP - will not survive more than two of its four-year mandate.

In a wide-ranging interview with ATol's Southeast Asia Editor Shawn W Crispin, Abhisit challenges those predictions and explains how a Democrat-led government would act to return Thailand to political stability and fast and sustainable economic growth. Interview excerpts follow:

ATol: With elections nearly three weeks away, what is your prediction of the polls result? How is your Democrat Party going to fare?

Abhisit: It's going to be a tight race. But we're confident when it comes down to the choice on December 23 that the Thai people will opt for moving the country forward, moving the country beyond this old power-new power conflict and electing a government that's honest, that puts the people first, with a new generation of leadership.

ATol: If the Democrats don't win the most votes, as some preliminary polls seem to indicate, are you confident that the two key medium-sized parties - Pua Pandin and Chat Thai - would opt to form a coalition government with your party rather than the PPP? Do you have assurances from those parties for such an eventuality?

Abhisit: It's their choice. It's their choice and they will have to decide themselves.

ATol: In essence, how would a Democrat-led government differ from a PPP-led one?

Abhisit: One, we have our priority set on the people's interest. We've been busy over the last year talking about the issues that really matter to the people - the economy, high prices, the violence in the South and so on - and not focused on this power struggle between politicians and [the military].

Secondly, we'll ensure there's an honest and truly democratic government - so no conflict of interests. And also a government that respects the rights of all the people, invites the participation of people, and a government that is also in tune with the changes of the world.

ATol: Will a result where the Democrats receive less votes than the PPP and yet manage to form the next government lead to the political stability many people, particularly in the business community, are hoping these elections will accomplish?

Abhisit: I think what would ensure political stability is if you had a government that respects the principles of democracy and the rule of law. And we will ensure that there is respect for those principles and we will prove that through actions.

We've said we will not be like the [Thaksin-led] government, which tried to shut every single channel of opposition. We will allow the opposition to use the media, we will respect and attach importance to parliamentary debates, so that political conflict does not spill out into the streets. That's the best way to ensure stability. And of course as far as government stability is concerned, there's nothing better than delivering on your pledges to solve the country's problems ... and no scandals.

ATol: Some critical commentators have questioned if you have the experience and stature in Thai culture terms, you're still in your early 40s, necessary to lead, particularly a coalition government especially one comprised of such disparate and potentially fractious political interest groups. How would you respond?

Abhisit: I get older every day (laughs). Let me ask this back: Are people satisfied with the old kind of leadership that's been tested time and time again and has led us into this crisis? Isn't it time for 

Continued 1 2

The Thai military's democratic nightmare (Nov 16, '07)

Thailand heads for straitjacket elections (Oct 31, '07)

Thailand's rocky road ahead (Sep 13, '07)

1. The coming China crash

2. India flies the red flag

3. Spies show Bush a way forward on Iran

4. The shock of a thousand

5. Leave, or we will behead you

6. US spies concoct a potent
Iran brew

7. Iran seizes on US turnaround

8. Hirsi Ali, atheism and Islam

9. The Syrians are back

10. India flies the red flag

(24 hours to 11:59 pm ET, Dec 5, 2007)

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