Thai lawmakers for sale

A group of leading politicians head for a secret meeting with the powerful army chief as part of a plot to form a new government. But their plans go awry when they get lost in the sprawling military compound. They end up stranded at a gas station and wait for further instructions. A lone soldier on a motorcycle is dispatched to meet the motorcade of party bosses and direct them to their rendezvous. By then, there have been witnesses. Soon, the secret meeting is exposed.

This is not the plot of a Thai movie; rather one of many behind-the-scenes deals that have come to light during the past days. They grew in intensity by the week’s end, ahead of Monday’s extraordinary session to choose a new prime minister. For now, the frontrunner for the premier’s stakes is Abhisit Vejjajiva, the clean-cut, youthful-looking opposition leader who had a patrician upbringing. The head of the Democrat Party was born in England and studied at such hallowed institutions as Eton and Oxford University.

His chances of becoming Thailand’s 27th premier — and the third for this year — have been strengthened by deals brokered between his party and a group of nearly 40 parliamentarians from the former government, who have pledged to defect. Three smaller parties that were part of the former government’s coalition have also thrown their weight behind the Democrats, giving it, for now, the support of 240 out of parliament’s 438 sitting legislators. A Thai language newspaper reported that large sums of money were being offered to the defectors.

The price for parliamentarians has gone up to “40 million baht (1.2 million US dollars) per person” to join the Democrat coalition.

Such bribery, a feature of this country’s struggling democracy, reached new highs after the formation, in 1998, of the Thai Rak Thai party by Thaksin Shinawatra. The Democrats conceded heavy defeats during the 2001 and the 2005 polls to the TRT.

But Thaksin and the TRT were forced out of power in a 2006 military coup,

the country’s 18th. A subsequent ruling by a junta-appointed tribunal dissolved the TRT and banned Thaksin and 110 executives of the party from politics for five years.

The Democrats have also profited after the leaders of the People Power Party, whose members are now in the Puea Thai party, came under mounting criticism and noisy street protests by a right-wing, pro-royalist movement, the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). The PAD succeeded in crippling the PPP-led government after it forcefully occupied the prime minister’s office in August and then took over Thailand’s largest international airport for a week in November.

Yet such a shift in his favour still does not mean that the 44-year-old Abhisit is certain of victory. “Things are still very fluid at the moment. Nobody really knows who is who and what their stand is and how many people there are in each faction,” says Michael Nelson, a German academic who has written extensively about Thai political parties. Yet one outcome that money will not be able to buy is stability for the new government to complete the three more years left in the current term. “Stability will be the last thing the Thai government will have,” says Thanet Aphornsuvan, a historian at Bangkok’s Thammasat University. “The new coalition government will be very fragile.” — IPS