Newinomics: is the powerbroker moving forward to the past?

6 September 2010

Newin Chidchob holds no political office. Under the ruling which dissolved the Thai Rak Thai Party in 2007, he is under a five-year ban from political activity which extends until May 2012. Four years ago, he was targeted by the coup makers as public enemy number two, and many believed he would be forced to flee into exile, just like public enemy number one.

Yet today his paw prints are all over the political scene. In the recent reshuffle in the upper ranks of the Ministry of Interior, those rising to the key posts which oversee local administration were reported as being "close to Newin." So were many who were moved to governorships of large provinces which will be important in any future general election.

Last week there was a reshuffle at the second tier of the police. Again, many rising to key administrative posts, as well as some provincial police chiefs, were said to be "close to Newin." In last month's budget, some extraordinary discretionary allocations were earmarked for certain provinces. Again some of the press detected the hand of Newin. Nobody suggests his influence extends to the military list in the same way, but he seems on good terms with the military brass, quite unlike four years ago when he complained they held him in detention then dumped him on the street, stripped to his underpants.

After the budget debate, the Pheu Thai party expelled four members for disloyalty. Two were already rumoured to be in the process of shifting to the Bhum Jai Thai Party (BJT). Pheu Thai leaders have claimed that these defectors were "bought," and the figure of eighty million baht per head has been named. In interview, one of the defectors complained that he and other defectors had not been "taken care of" in Pheu Thai. In the coded language of Thai politics, this phrase is usually taken to have something to do with money. Some of the press took this statement to be confirmation of the transfer deal. The defector later came out to claim that he had been talking in jest, but such denials are another standard part of the ritual.

Of course, the allegations of payment may just be sour grapes. If Pheu Thai is beginning to lose the loyalty of its members because of its chaotic leadership and Thaksin's fading interest, then such allegations are one way both to save face and discourage other members from defecting and being slurred in the same way.

In the general public impression, BJT is seen as "Newin's party." In official terms he can have no role in the party because of his ban, but nobody has tried to enforce that restriction. When BJT was formed, several other banned politicians were equally prominent as leaders behind the scenes. All of the others have now faded away.

Newin has been closely associated with Vichai Raksriaksorn, the head of King Power. Last week Vichai talked openly about their association and their common interest in football. Four years ago, Vichai was targeted by the generals for acquiring his 10-year monopoly on the retail and duty free concession at Suvarnabhumi Airport in an improper manner, and abusing its conditions in various ways. The Airports Authority resolved to revoke the contract, and judicial proceedings were launched. But all these difficulties for King Power began to fade after Parliament was restored, and they seem to have disappeared completely since the deal to install the current coalition government was brokered in the Pullman King Power Hotel with both Vichai and Newin present. When King Power celebrated its twentieth anniversary a year ago, General Prawit Wongsuwan, Minister of Defence and a close associate of the coup group, attended the glittering event. In the 2010 Forbes list of Thai billionaires, Vichai has slipped down the rankings to 35th, but retained his net estimated worth of US$ 180 million.

A succession of changes in the four years since the coup have transported Thai politics back to the past. The revision of the electoral rules, and military backing for new parties, has fragmented the Parliament. Some 114 MPs, spread across some ten parties and slip-sliding party fragments, hold the balance of power. Maintaining a coalition requires constant deal-making. The 2007 Constitution deliberately weakened both Parliament and the executive, creating more space for the bureaucracy, police, military, and other agencies. Getting anything done requires constant deal making between the executive and other agencies. Power is traded for money, and money for power.

In this marketplace, Newin is the master trader. He began his political apprenticeship in the early 1990s in Group 16, a cross-party alliance of young politicians who shared a common interest in the art and the rewards of the deal. Since then, he has rarely been remote from power. His transition from opponent of Thaksin, to Thaksin's closest aide, and then to cosy associate of Thaksin's enemies has displayed the touch of a master performer. Abhisit cannot compete. Nor can anyone else among the Democrats except Suthep Thaugsuban. Newin has the floor almost to himself. He is so prominent despite the ban because he is good at the game that now matters.

But how far does this political backsliding go? Is it just confined to the rarefied world of power brokerage, or does it extend down to the grassroots? Will elections also return to the old politics of money and influence? At present, we don't really know. By-election results have been too few and too disparate to give a good guide. Local polls, like the recent Bangkok vote, are never a good guide to voting at the national level. For prospective candidates at a future election, this poses a massive dilemma. Will Newinomics deliver? Will money, "influence," and the power of local officialdom determine the election result? Or is the recent pattern - of voting by party, by emotional identification, by belief in the possibility of the vote to bring real change - here to stay?