By Chris Beale
Amid the euphoria of pro-democracy parties winning Thailand's elections on September 13, there was a chill feeling of deja vu. Unstable civilian governments have been one of the Thai military's most used excuses for staging coups.
The narrow five-seat majority won by pro-democracy parties leaves the new coalition government of Democrat Chuan Leekpai already threatened with instability. Chuan faces not only a hostile, powerful Senate — appointed by the former unelected prime minister, General Suchinda — but also several other challenges.
While the near doubling of Democrat Party seats was the election's big surprise, the pro-military Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party won 77 seats — only two less than the Democrats.
Allegations are that many of Chart Thai's seats were won through massive vote-buying. Those politicians who spent large sums to get elected — and their military backers — will not tolerate being out of power for long. They need to recoup their investments by selling government contracts, perks and positions. This is the second election they have had to finance in six months.
Allegations have been made that some parties in the pro-democracy coalition also bought votes. This charge has been levelled especially at New Aspiration, which won 51 seats, many of them in impoverished rural areas.
New Aspiration's leader, General Chavalit, has long held ambitions of becoming prime minister. He is now being wooed by the pro-military parties, who want him to change sides.
During the election, Chuan was lambasted and lampooned by some of his nominal allies in the pro-democracy coalition for not having faced the soldiers' guns on Ratchadamoen Avenue, where the bloodbath took place in May.
Chuan defended himself by saying he was busy negotiating for troops to withdraw from the confrontation, and for the king to intervene. When splits began appearing in the army, I saw Chuan mediating between different groups of soldiers, one of which was refusing to take further part in the crackdown. Eventually this unit of about 50 men left Ratchadamoen Avenue — to thunderous applause from the enormous crowd.
The fact that Chuan was the only major contender for prime minister who did not have a military background was another drawcard in the Democrats' campaign.
Besides Chuan, the other Mr Clean of Thai politics is Chamlong Srimuang, the former major-general turned devout Buddhist. Chamlong's he election from charges that he had led demonstrators to their deaths.
Chamlong's Palang Dhamma (Moral Force) Party had its massive Bangkok majority in last March's general election cut by nine seats. However, Palang Dhamma increased its vote in many provincial cities to win a national total of 47 seats — six more than in March.
Palang Dhamma faced more intimidation of its candidates, canvassers, and voters than did the other parties. Its strict rules against vote-buying also ruled it out of the rampant money politics.