Leading candidates for prime minister of Thailand are a study in contrast

International Herald Tribune

The Associated Press

Published: December 22, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand: One is polite, Oxford-educated and movie-star handsome. The other is aging, acid-tongued and a veteran of rough and tumble politics.

One of these starkly contrasting men is likely to emerge as Thailand’s next prime minister after parliamentary elections Sunday, which will restore democracy after 15 months of military-led rule.

Samak Sundaravej, the 72-year-old veteran, is an ultra-right-winger who heads the People’s Power Party. His earthy, shoot-from-the hip style is popular with some in the working class, though less so with analysts and the media.

“Samak is acerbic, belligerent, polarizing and divisive,” says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. “He is not very appealing.”

His opponent, Abhisit Vejjajiva, the 43-year-old head of the liberal Democrat Party, has other shortcomings. Born and educated in England, in the hallowed halls of Eton and Oxford, he is out of touch with regular people and downright boring, some experts say.

“He is well equipped on paper but he has not been able to connect to the grass roots,” Thitinan said. “He has not been able to widen and broaden his appeal to become a national candidate for prime minister.”

Most polls show that Samak’s People’s Power Party will win the most seats but fall short of a majority in the 480-seat parliament.

Typically, the leader of the winning party forms a government with coalition partners and takes the premiership. However, some experts see another likely scenario: smaller parties joining forces with the Democrats, paving the way for Abhisit to rise to the top post.

Samak is the torchbearer for Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire businessman who was ousted as prime minister in a bloodless coup in September 2006. He lives in self-imposed exile in London, in part because he would face corruption charges if he returned.

The People’s Power Party is made up mostly of Thaksin’s old supporters, though Samak himself is new to the Thaksin team.

“I don’t have to talk much about policies, because the whole country knows what the policies of our party are,” Samak said in an interview with The Associated Press.

As prime minister from 2001 to 2006, Thaksin launched programs to help Thailand’s poor rural areas, including low-interest loans, virtually free medical care and village development projects.

“Thaksin did good things for the country for five years and the whole country knows it,” Samak said.

Samak, known as a cat lover and passionate cook, carries some serious political baggage.

He is still remembered for allegedly stirring up right-wing mobs that killed leftist student activists in 1976. Now, he faces corruption charges related to the purchase of fire trucks and bidding on a sewage project during his term as Bangkok mayor.

His opponent has been a shining star since he entered politics at the age of 27. He moves among the Thai elite and counts among his favorite books, the “Myth of Sisyphus” by French existential novelist Albert Camus.

Abhisit says he is the right choice after years of polarized politics. He pledges to boost the economy, provide free education, quell violence in the insurgency-wracked south and root out government corruption.

“The choice Thai voters have is very clear,” Abhisit said. “By electing a new, fresh, honest government that puts the people first, money will finally go to improving peoples lives — not to the pockets of the powerful.”

There is no love lost between the two candidates. Deeming him too young to lead, Samak likens his rival to an “unripe mango.” Retorts Abhisit, Samak is “expired medicine.”

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