Thailand's future rests on the survival of Abhisit Vejjajiva as the country's prime minister, according to FinanceAsia readers. In our web poll last week, respondents voted strongly in favour of Abhisit as the person most capable to lead Thailand out of its political impasse.
Red-shirted supporters of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have caused mayhem on the streets of Bangkok during the past month, culminating in violent clashes with police and the army just before the national holiday of Songkran -- normally a time when Thais and tourists alike are celebrating the end of the dry season with mass water fights.
The protests have continued through the holiday. Yesterday, the army was called in to fortify Bangkok Bank's headquarters against demonstrators intent on storming the building -- and not for the first time. Thaksin's supporters also tried to march on Bangkok Bank in February to protest its links with Prem Tinsulanonda, the president of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's privy council and a former adviser to the bank, whom they accuse of orchestrating the coup that led to Thaksin's ousting in 2006.
The country had already been in a political stalemate for two years by that point and has stayed there ever since. Abhisit has the office for now, but the current crisis reflects the fact that his mandate is precariously weak -- it took him three tries to win the election and, even then, he was helped by the fact that election authorities had banned most of his opponents and their parties.
Even so, the 400 respondents to our poll were unambiguous in their support for Abhisit. Two-thirds said that he was the best person to lead Thailand to stability, while the king and Thaksin shared similar support at around 9%. Just one respondent voted for opposition leader Arisman Pongruangrong.
Perhaps the most interesting result, however, was that 15% said they had no idea who could help Thailand. In the wake of Thaksin's exile, the country has failed to find a leader capable of filling his shoes and, while it is easy to characterise him as a bogeyman, Thaksin is loved by many people in Thailand because he did what so few other leaders have managed: he got results.
Certainly that cannot be said of Abhisit yet. In a report released yesterday, Fitch Ratings changed Thailand's local currency rating outlook to negative from stable, while affirming its rating at A-. "After a long period of fiscal consolidation," it said in the report, "public finances could deteriorate over the medium term in the face of a policy vacuum. There have been no major reforms on raising fiscal revenue, especially since 2006, as political uncertainty has shortened the terms of governments and weakened their credibility in policy implementation."
In 2009, the country's economy contracted by 2.3%, but Fitch predicts it will recover to 3.8% growth this year and 4.2% in 2011, despite the confrontations in Bangkok. It added, however, that "although the political climate has not yet materially affected Thailand's public and external finances, prolonged political uncertainty is likely to undermine sovereign creditworthiness over time, potentially exerting further downward pressure on the country's sovereign ratings."
Abhisit inherited a terrible situation that has only been made worse by the financial crisis, not least because Thailand's economic woes only make Thaksin's achievements seem even more remarkable. He delivered consistent economic growth during his tenure as prime minister, from 2001 to 2006, and his supposedly populist rhetoric was backed up by close to 50% economic growth in Isarn and a nationwide halving of poverty. He picked the country up from the Asian financial crisis and got it back to its feet again, at least for a while, which is why the populace came out in record numbers to vote for him.
However, the sad truth seems to be that Thaksin's effective leadership, however flawed, was an aberration in Thai politics and the seeming chaos that has followed him is, in fact, more like a reversion to type.
Photo provided by AFP.