Can Abhisit lead Thailand?
Democrat leader needs to roll up his sleeves, show voters he's up to the challenge
Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, left, holds Chat Thai leader Banharn Silapa-archa’s hand as they share a light moment during the Democrat fund-raiser at the Bitec conference centre on Saturday.
After 60 years, Thailand's grand old party is still trying to get its act together. It held a gala dinner on Saturday to commemorate its 60th anniversary, and to raise funds for the next campaign. Its youthful leader Abhisit Vejjajiva desperately struggled to rise to the occasion.
The Democrat Party sold some 400 tables out of 500 at the vast Bitec arena in Bang Na. Each table had 10 seats and since each seat cost Bt50,000, the party stood to gain about Bt200 million from this grandiose event, designed to kick-start its sluggish campaign and Abhisit's lacklustre leadership.
This was not too bad as it showed people were willing to attend the Democrats' function despite the climate of fear in the present overheated political climate.
"It's a good start because more and more people want to support us," said Korn Chatikavanij, a member of the party's top brass.
"It is our job to raise funds from the public. This helps improve politics in general because we can do our job without having to think about favouring any financial backers."
While caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is wobbling with his leadership, Abhisit is yet to build his credibility as the alternative premier. Thai Rak Thai's waning popularity has yet to be translated into political gain for the Democrats.
While Thaksin has an image of a can-do prime minister, Abhisit is a bit of a hands-off leader. In general, the Thais look for tangible achievements and quick decisions from a leader, regardless of the outcome. Abhisit is yet to face a big test. So on Saturday, Abhisit looked determined to boost confidence in his leadership.
There were two parts to the gala dinner. The first featured a stage drama with an overhead screenplay depicting the Democrat history. During the roller-coaster ride through Thai democracy, political parties have come and gone amid elections and military take-overs. Yet the Democrats have survived and proved themselves a party with a strong foundation.
The next part was Abhisit's showcase. He went over to the podium to share his vision about his leadership. In the short term, the Democrats would like the government to tackle the high oil and electricity prices and the rising cost of living. If PTT, whose debt-to-equity ratio has improved significantly due to its buoyant performance, were to pay more dividends to the government's coffers, the administration would be able to reduce the burden on the oil fund. The oil fund is currently carrying debts of Bt80-Bt90 billion due to its oil subsidies.
Since Egat is not going to be listed on the stock exchange - at least in the foreseeable future - it can afford not to push all the burden to the Thai consumers. For, as a state enterprise, Egat no longer has to pay any attention to the minimum return on investment or to shareholder interest.
Democrat Kiat Sittheeamorn said prices for several items in the shops had risen far faster than energy prices.
"There are too few measures to control prices of products that affect people's lives," he said.
With regard to efforts to reduce the country's dependence on imported energy, the Thai Rak Thai has proposed mega-projects, including a 10-line transport network and another five-million-rai palm-oil plantation.
Abhisit answered with micro-projects to produce alternate energy such as bio-fuels from natural resources. But at the same time, the transport projects have to be urgently implemented to reduce traffic congestion and energy consumption. Thailand's dependence on imported oil is among the highest in the world, accounting for about 8-9 per cent of gross domestic product.
He also had a long-term plan regarding education, income distribution and how Thailand would cope with globalisation.
The Democrats' policy platform for the next election has now been 90 per cent completed, he claimed.
Abhisit looks ready to bring the Democrats into the next election fighting for good governance and against corruption after boycotting the April election.
But are voters ready for the Democrat Party - the party they love to hate?
Abhisit will have to do more to win the hearts and minds of the voters. More TV exposure is necessary but he may also need to take a hands-on approach to his leadership and work relentlessly on the campaign trail, where he needs to show he's on the same wavelength as the Thai public.