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Farmers' plight adds to post-election gloom

Politicisation of rice growers' suffering makes it much harder for Pheu Thai to admit its mistakes and makes its opponents more determined to prove the pledge policy wrong

Nearly a week has passed since the election and the usual "safe-house meetings" to form a coalition government have still not taken place. Neither have we had the traditional reports on horse-trading, or speculation about who will be finance minister or House speaker. Pheu Thai, the only major party to contest last Sunday's poll, has shown no signs of a celebratory mood. Rather, the political suspense has only deepened and Thailand seems to be rolling relentlessly towards another flash point.

We were spared deadly violence on February 2, but, cynically speaking, Pheu Thai would probably have gained from widespread disturbances. The embattled ruling camp was counting on a groundswell of "pro-election" sentiment - a slap in the face for its opponents. That did not happen.

With the total number of votes, "No" votes and voters who boycotted the poll confirming a crisis of confidence in the party, obstruction of balloting on a massive scale might have been a useful excuse. As it turns out, Pheu Thai has found itself in a worse situation.

The election results will be vigorously challenged. With poll numbers being leaked all over the place - including "victory" claims by senior government figures like Chalerm Yoobamrung - additional elections to "fix" the incomplete ballot on February 2 will face legitimacy questions. The announcement of a state of emergency, meanwhile, raises two questions. First, was the caretaker government empowered to declare the emergency when a general election was just days away? And, following on from that question, could the February 2 election really free, fair and transparent amid a state of emergency?

Then there's the issue of whether a new government can be formed when it's likely there won't be enough MPs elected to convene a new Parliament. Adding to Pheu Thai's woes are the many MPs and senators still bracing for the legal consequences of voting for the doomed amnesty and charter-amendment bills. If, somehow, Pheu Thai miraculously manages to form a new government, the storms ahead will look even more daunting.

But something must be done soon regarding the plight of Thai farmers, who have been held hostage to the political impasse. The government has not paid the majority of farmers who participated in the highly controversial rice-price-pledging scheme. That needs immediate remedy. Hardly less urgent is the need for politicians to decide on longer-term support for our rice-growers, traditionally the "backbone" of the nation.

What should we do with the rice scheme? Pheu Thai has refused to admit that it's a bad initiative. The failure to pay farmers has been blamed on the political turmoil, which led to the House being dissolved and the government being demoted to "caretaker" status and unable to spend state funds. Meanwhile the ruling party blames politicisation of the rice project for torpedoing overseas government-to-government sales of stockpiled rice.

The road ahead might look bleak, but that must not stop everyone concerned from coming together to find a way out for the farmers, both in the short and longer terms. First, though, Pheu Thai must admit that the programme has undercut the competitiveness of Thai farmers, spawned corruption and damaged fiscal planning. Meanwhile, anti-government protesters must de-politicise the issue and focus instead on actions that will ease the farmers' plight.

Farmers' suffering has become intertwined with the political crisis. This is bad for all of us, but it's disastrous for them. Politicisation of their plight makes it much harder for Pheu Thai to admit its mistakes and makes its opponents more determined to prove the policy wrong, even at the expense of focusing on immediate rescue measures. The warring parties must think long and hard about this sector of the population, who are apparently paying the price for being the group that all politicians want to help.


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