The Nation

OVERDRIVE

Three major bills put thai politics at a crossroads again

ON MONDAY, the government will be putting forward three important bills for parliamentary debate. All these bills involve huge sums of money, and it will be interesting to see how the Bhum Jai Thai Party, one of the main coalition partners, will react to them.

The first bill is a Bt400-billion loan package introduced as an executive decree. The opposition Pheu Thai Party had earlier protested that this bill was not an emergency, forcing the government to seek a ruling from the Constitution Court. Last week, much to the relief of the government, the Constitution Court ruled that the package was not unconstitutional. Government coffers are running dry and its borrowing requirements are strung up by legal complications. It desperately needs this bill to be passed so it can keep the machinery running. The second bill involves a Bt400-billion loan package for long-term commitments. Unlike the first bill, this one is being introduced as an Act. The last bill being put forward is the 2010 budget. It will be a test for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, because he will need all his artful manoeuvres to get the job done. Satit Wongnongtaey, attached to the Office of the Prime Minister, has told all Democrat MPs to be at Parliament and make sure these bills are passed. He also signalled that the coalition partners should display the same commitment, otherwise the Thai economy and the public will suffer. However, the question still remains; how will Bhum Jai Thai react to the bills, especially the executive decree? After all, Bhum Jai Thai was betrayed by the Democrats last Wednesday, when Abhisit, once again, delayed the approval of the Bt64-billion bus-leasing deal for the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority, which comes under the jurisdiction of Transport Minister Sophon Saram. Sophon is a key member of Bhum Jai Thai, which is controlled by Newin Chidchob. There had been a tacit agreement between Newin, Deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban and Abhisit that the bus-leasing deal had to be pushed through, otherwise it would be impossible for Bhum Jai Thai to continue supporting the government. Commissions that can be earned from this project are so huge that it has drawn plenty of flak from both the public and the lawmakers, particularly the Senate. Abhisit is under so much heat that he has had to put off making a decision by telling the government think-tank, the National Economic and Social Development Board (NESDB), to come up with recommendations within a month. The NESDB is tasked with seeing if it would be better for the BMTA to lease or to purchase the fleet of 4,000 NGV buses. The Finance Ministry, under Korn Chatikavanij, is also working on a parallel study to see if it is feasible for the BMTA to purchase the fleet once the lease ends. Both Newin and Sophon believe the Democrats have let them down. However, the Democrats are also caught in a dilemma. They want to push the bus deal through, but are afraid that they won't be able to justify it.Obviously, the month the NESDB will spend studying the project will give the Democrats some breathing space. Besides, the Democrats can also use it as a bargaining tool with Bhum Jai Thai. If Newin really wants the bus-leasing deal to go through, his party will have to vote in the Bt400-billion borrowing package. This must have given Newin a great deal to think about. What if the Democrats were to betray him again? Though he can trust Suthep, who is believed to have control over Abhisit, what about the other Democrats? Can they be trusted to play the game? Lately we have heard that the Democrat phu yai, or the respected elders, are not planning to let the bus-leasing deal see daylight. If the deal gets Cabinet approval, it will signal the demise of the Democrats in Bangkok come elections. The party's future is at stake here. If Bhum Jai Thai were to vote down the Bt400-billion loan package in retaliation, the Democrats could then tell the public that the bill - which would have kept the country going - got torpedoed by the coalition partner. Parliament would have to be dissolved and new general elections called. By then, the Democrats would have built an alliance with the People's Alliance for Democracy, which is now in the process of setting up a political party called Phak Karn Muang Mai or the New Politics Party. With Pheu Thai getting smaller, Bhum Jai Thai is expected to emerge as a formidable player in the next elections. Also, ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra is believed to be making plans for other satellite parties.In other words, Thai politics will continue being polarised between two opposing forces - the Democrats and the New Politics Party against Bhum Jai Thai, the Pheu Thai and others.If Bhum Jai Thai were to show support by voting for the bills, then Abhisit would continue being delicately balanced on the tightrope of the premiership. Still, we all know that Newin will not bite the bullet for too long, and Thai politics is once again going to be navigating a dangerous road. In other words, there's more turmoil lying in wait.

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