Thailand: Premier-elect for softening IMF terms

Bangkok, 11 Jan (IPS) -- Thailand’s prime minister-in-waiting has reassured the nation that he will neither hold on to office if found guilty of concealing his immense wealth nor take risks with the troubled economy.

In his first media interview since his party’s landslide win in the Jan. 6 national election, telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra also said his government would try to soften the “tough” terms imposed on Thailand by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“The IMF was quite tough with what they did. This was the wrong way and we would like to discuss changes,” Thaksin was quoted as saying.  He was referring to the conditions on which the multilateral lender bailed the Southeast Asian nation from the late 1990s financial crisis.

The crisis sharply dented national income and has burdened the country with nearly $100 billion in foreign debt.

Political analysts say the unpopular IMF measures that were implemented by outgoing Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai’s coalition, were a key reason for the decisive defeat of Chuan’s party in the parliamentary election.

Though election results are still to be formally announced because of delayed counting in some constituencies, Chuan’s Democrat Party has conceded defeat to Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai.

Riding on the back of populist promises to voters in the mainly rural nation of over 60 million people, Thaksin’s party—a relative newcomer—has secured a clear majority in the 500-member lower house of parliament.

This was the first election under Thailand’s new constitution - that came into effect in the year 1997 - and was supervised for the first time by a powerful national Election Commission Thaksin’s assurance to the ‘International Herald Tribune’ in an interview published Thursday, followed widespread criticism of his decision to contest the polls after his indictment by the official anti-corruption watchdog.

Said to be Thailand’s richest individual, Thaksin was charged with violating a rule that requires those taking up public office to declare their personal assets.

Days before the polls, the National Counter-Corruption Commission (NCCC) found Thaksin guilty of not doing so when he was a senior member in the then Thai government four years ago. A final verdict is due from the powerful Constitution Court. A confirmation of the NCCC ruling would bar Thaksin from holding public office for five years.

Last year, the Court upheld a similar NCCC verdict against a top leader of Chuan’s party who had to quit politics for five years.

Fears were expressed that an adverse verdict by the Constitution Court, which is due after the inauguration of the new government, would force Thaksin and his entire cabinet to quit, creating a power vacuum.

Some even cited expressions of concern on this score by senior army commanders to warn that this could lead to a return of the military.

Thailand was under direct military rule or led by army-backed governments for most of the seven decades since switching from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.

“I would definitely step down. I would remain in charge of my party, pick someone to replace me (as prime minister), and I would support him,” Thaksin told the Tribune.

While calming fears that he would trigger a constitutional crisis by ignoring an adverse Constitution Court verdict, the prime minister-elect, however, asserted that he was wrongly being described as “corrupt” in media reports.

“I am not corrupt. I admit I made a mistake of reporting (my assets),” he said. But he also expressed confidence that the case was complicated and that the indictment was unlikely to be upheld.  “This will not happen. I am definitely sure I will be here as prime minister for four years,” he said.

Thaksin also denied that his election promises would plunge the nation into a deeper economic crisis. These include suspension of a multi-billion US dollar debt owed by millions of farmers to government banks and a one-million baht (about $23,000) largesse to each of Thailand’s over 70,000 villages.

Thai Rak Thai’s get-rich-quick promises to Thais impatient with slow recovery from the economic crisis were criticised not just by Thailand’s media commentators but also by leading Asian newspapers.

However, Thaksin says his promises should be seen as money spent on building the ‘foundation’ of the Thai economy. “We are trying to make funds available to help people stand on their own feet,” he said.

Thaksin also spoke of a shift in foreign policy that would avoid interfering in the “internal affairs” of neighbouring Burma.

“We will tell them to move toward democracy because it is like eating something with a very good taste. We are not forcing, because this is their internal affair,” he said.

This is in contrast to the stand of the Chuan government, which has maintained that Bangkok can take interest in Burma’s internal affairs when these affect Thailand.

Media commentators nonetheless advised Thaksin not to take “risks” with Thailand as he has with his business empire.

“Thaksin Shinawatra made his fortune and his name by taking risks, and now he has the trust of the people that his ways will benefit the entire country,” said Thailand’s leading English language daily, ‘Bangkok Post’.

“But at stake aren’t only Thailand’s prospects over the next four years, but those for generations to come,” the daily noted in a main editorial Thursday, titled ‘Now is not the time to be taking risks.’