In Thai Election, Power Broker Resurfaces

 The Wall Street Journal Home Page

Banharn Is Again Key Player in Process
Likely to Result in a Weak Coalition Government

By JAMES HOOKWAY
December 5, 2007; Page A11

SUPHANBURI, Thailand — As Thailand returns to democracy after 15 months of military rule, 75-year-old provincial power broker Banharn Silpa-archa will likely determine who gets to be the next prime minister.

[Thai politician Banharn Silpa-archa makes a sign for 13, the number his party will be using in the general election.]

Thai politician Banharn Silpa-archa makes a sign for 13, the number his party will be using in the general election.

In a country where massage-parlor tycoons, pop singers and Harley-riding generals run for public office, Mr. Banharn stands out as a stubborn survivor of a less-flashy era.

Allegations of corruption and loss of support from coalition partners forced the deal maker to quit as prime minister in 1996 after 14 months in office. Derided by the Thai media as a country bumpkin, Mr. Banharn retreated to his hometown. There, he built a waxworks museum in honor of his political achievements and watched while other premiers came and went.

Now, with parliamentary elections set for Dec. 23, Mr. Banharn has returned — and is back in the power-brokering business. “I’ll talk to anybody about forming a new government,” he says, taking a break from talks with financiers and envoys from other politicians who are discussing plans for his return.

Last year’s coup toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. He was Thailand’s most popular elected leader ever, but also one whose populist policies and autocratic manner upset the country’s military and conservative political establishment.

Mr. Thaksin, a billionaire telecom tycoon who served as premier for five years, is now in self-imposed exile in Britain, avoiding Thai-government efforts to try him on corruption charges. His Thais Love Thais political party — once the country’s largest — has been outlawed, though some of his followers have formed the smaller People Power Party.

That means Thailand’s next civilian government is likely to be a weak coalition patched together from a passel of smaller parties. Such an outcome would ensure that the behind-the-scenes influence of Thailand’s traditional elites — the military, civil service and royalist aristocracy — will be preserved.

A coalition of smaller groups jostling for primacy will also be less likely to quickly change economic policy. Even throughout the chaotic years of the late 1980s and 1990s, successive Thai governments have generally been supportive of private business.

This inadvertent laissez-faire approach helped Thailand emerge as one of the world’s fastest-growing economies and an important link in the global supply chain for companies such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Ford Motor Co. “A weak government could mean a stronger economy,” says Andrew Stotz, head of research at CLSA Asia-Pacific Markets in Bangkok.

And it opens the doors to the return of old-school Thai power brokers, which is where Mr. Banharn comes in. In the voting, his Thai Nation party is likely to win about one-quarter of the seats. To secure a majority in Parliament and form a government, Mr. Thaksin’s followers would need those seats. So, too, would the military-backed Democrat Party and its leader, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

So far, Mr. Banharn isn’t saying whom he might side with — it isn’t in his financial interest to do so. Old-style politics in Thailand is often more about business than policy. Some small businessmen or retired military leaders have a penchant to start their own political parties in hope of getting rich — or richer. Their goal is to be taken over by one of the larger, more-established political groups. Political analysts estimate the “transfer fee” of one parliamentary seat from party to party can be nearly $1 million.

Sometimes, as with Mr. Banharn’s party, smaller political parties agree to form coalitions with their larger competitors. In return, they collect some of the choicest ministerial portfolios in the government.

Mr. Banharn has mastered this trick. In his 33 years in politics, he has served as finance minister, commerce minister and industry minister. He eventually formed his own short-lived government in 1995.

Then, in 2001, Mr. Thaksin turned Thailand’s political order upside down. Flush with cash from his telecom empire, Mr. Thaksin acquired the backing of many of the smaller parties under the umbrella of his own party. In 2005, Mr. Thaksin won an outright majority in Parliament — the first Thai politician to do so. He didn’t need the likes of Mr. Banharn anymore.

After that, Mr. Banharn says he thought he wouldn’t see the inside of the prime minister’s office again. “I thought Mr. Thaksin would be in power for 20 years,” Mr. Banharn says.

Seemingly made obsolete by a new breed of politicians who paid more attention to slick marketing than late-night horse-trading, Mr. Banharn began spending more time at home in Suphanburi, about 60 miles northwest of Bangkok.

Last year, he began drawing up plans for a roughly 100-yard-long concrete dragon to house a museum of Chinese history. But then came the September 2006 coup. And the demand for the services of smaller players such as Mr. Banharn has rebounded.

Many educated Thais are nervous about the return of Mr. Banharn and other older politicians. To critics, they represent the excesses and governance problems of Thailand in the 1990s that led to Asia’s financial crisis.

But the people in Mr. Banharn’s hometown of Suphanburi are eager for his return to government. Over the years, Mr. Banharn has channeled millions of dollars to this farming village. “Oh, it would be wonderful if he could be back in government again,” says Supachai Bunsorn, a 47-year-old butcher in the town market.

Among the gifts Mr. Banharn has bestowed on his constituents are a little-traveled six-lane highway running through the heart of Suphanburi, a nearly 400-foot-tall Banharn observation tower and several schools named for Mr. Banharn and his wife.

In return, the people of Suphanburi chipped in to help Mr. Banharn build his waxworks museum on the outskirts of town. Along with a display of the gifts Mr. Banharn received from foreign leaders — and a striking picture of Mr. Banharn dwarfed by former German leader Helmut Kohl — the museum includes lifelike scenes of Mr. Banharn’s childhood in Suphanburi and his steady rise to power in Bangkok. One exhibit: a young Mr. Banharn making calculations on his first abacus.

In Thai Election, Power Broker Resurfaces – WSJ.com

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