Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Why Abhisit lost

BANGKOK: When Ms Yingluck Shinawatra first took to the campaign trail in northern Thailand in May, her speeches were mild and occasionally hesitant, and filled with numerous awkward pauses. By the tail end of the campaign, however, her poise was far more assured, and her delivery more emotive. The style of the opposition Puea Thai's top candidate was at once girlishly appealing, yet sincere. Her transformation from debutante to leader was obvious.

By Nirmal Ghosh, Thailand Correspondent

In contrast, Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was always a skilful speaker and debater.

But his speaking skills could not make up for the awkwardness that was apparent when the British-born, Oxford-educated Premier tried to mingle with people. He often appeared to lack the common touch, and was described by some as looking out of place in rural settings, however hard he tried.

And that was essentially why Mr Abhisit and his party lost at the polls: They simply failed to connect with voters.

The result was a trouncing. Puea Thai galloped to a clear victory with 265 out of the 500 parliamentary seats, while Democrats limped in with 159. The remainder was shared between Bhum Jai Thai, with 34 seats, and smaller parties. These were the unofficial results as at yesterday; Thailand's Election Commission said the official results are likely to be out today.

Observers note that top echelons of the Democrat Party, which had strong backing from the Bangkok elite, had always been out of touch with the realities of much of rural, up-country Thailand.

'Abhisit's major flaw is that he is surrounded by the people at the top of the pyramid in Thai society, hence he (cannot) connect with grassroots people,' said 'red-shirt' leader Thida Thawornseth in a statement distributed during the campaign. That statement, titled Small Bird In A Golden Cage, proved prophetic.

Not that the Democrat leader didn't try. During the campaign, he did not hesitate to wade into rice fields or accompany monks on their morning rounds. He also never shunned debate, conversing for long minutes with anti-government red shirts who occasionally accosted him.

His party also believed it was addressing what Mr Abhisit called 'the real problems of the people' when it talked about high prices, drugs and debt - all real issues.

But for all of Mr Abhisit's charm, persuasion and reasonable manner, and the efforts of his party, the Democrats just failed to make an impact or connect with ordinary Thais.

The Democrats' list of problems made no mention of emotive issues, which were equally real among ordinary folk - perceptions of disenfranchisement, injustice and 'double standards', with one set for the elite and another for the working classes and the rural people.

Dozens of interviews in north-east Thailand suggest that the Democrat government's pro-poor policies also failed to reach the people - or if they did, made little difference to their lives.

Mr Abhisit had tried to make up for lost ground in the final stages of his campaign, making what many called the 'speech of his career' at a rally at Ratchaprasong in Bangkok.

In it, he recalled how he had wept when anti-government protesters were killed in clashes with the military in the capital's streets last summer. He then attacked Puea Thai for being a front for former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and blamed the red shirts for 'burning down Bangkok'.

That tactical shift to an aggressive attack was likely triggered by polls showing the Democrat Party trailing in Bangkok, its traditional stronghold.

But it came too late, and may have even made things worse. Some analysts say Mr Abhisit's change in tack might have swung some undecided voters in Bangkok towards the Democrats, but it probably cemented the resolve of even more red shirts to back the Puea Thai.

Ms Thida had predicted that, ultimately, Mr Abhisit's downfall would come because of last summer's clashes. She wrote: 'When Abhisit has to campaign and get in touch with the people... he is confronted with the stark reality that the people are angry and demanding answers from him.'