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Overdrive : FTA debacle reveals PM’s declining fortunes

The Nation, Bangkok

OVERDRIVE : FTA debacle reveals PM’s declining fortunes

13 January 2006

By Thanong Khanthong

Like the stalled privatisation of Egat Plc, the Thai-US Free-Trade Agreement talks look like dead meat. It all boils down to the waning credibility of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

If the people no longer trust him, they will not buy the FTA, no matter how hard he tries to sell it.

The timing is bad for an FTA since Thaksin no longer commands the high popularity he enjoyed during the past five years. In fact, Thaksin has said all along that getting a Thai-US FTA was one of his hallmark aims. But several sceptics, as well as many NGOs, have opposed or questioned the merits of such pacts. Still, Thaksin has managed to conclude FTAs with Bahrain and Australia, as well as one with China for fruits and vegetables only. He is also negotiating getting FTA talks started with Japan, India, Peru and other countries.

The FTA talks with the US are particularly tricky. In Chiang Mai, thousands of activists representing NGOs and civil-society groups have been trying to derail the talks, the sixth round of negotiations, which are expected to end today. The protests threaten to develop into an anti-Thaksin campaign. The underlying message of the protesters is that an FTA deal would amount to selling off Thailand to the US.

Last year, some disaffected labour unionists and civil-society and democracy groups succeeded in torpedoing the initial public offering (IPO) of Egat Plc. They took their case against Egat’s privatisation to the Supreme Administrative Court, which agreed to look into the legalities surrounding Egat’s privatisation and blocked the IPO. The concerns were that privatising Egat would result in skyrocketing electricity bills and would amount to converting national assets into pocket change for the nation’s capitalists. The anti-privatisation campaign developed into an anti-Thaksin campaign.

Around the same time, almost 100,000 local teachers nationwide showed strong opposition to the Thaksin government’s decentralisation policy. Teachers were afraid that they would have to answer to local headsmen once decentralisation policies took effect. Thousands of teachers travelled from their provinces to Bangkok to voice their dissent. They burnt their Thai Rak Thai Party ID cards in protest. This movement also developed distinct anti-Thaksin characteristics.

Confident in his strong leadership, Thaksin has so far succeeded in pushing through FTA deals without feeling it necessary to meaningfully consult with anybody else in Thai society. Public hearings on FTAs have been rare. Detailed information on FTAs has rarely been disclosed. Neither businessmen nor industrialists nor farmers have been closely consulted in regards to the pros and cons of FTAs. Parliament has also been bypassed because Thaksin deemed that FTAs were only “agreements”, not “treaties”, which require parliamentary approval.

Now Thaksin realises that he can no longer conveniently have his way and needs to start consulting other members of Thai society. The Thai public is beginning to question whether there are hidden agendas behind the privatisation of Egat and the FTA with the US. Even though they might support privatisation in general, they don’t think that the Thaksin government should privatise Egat at this time. Even though they might believe in trade liberalisation, they aren’t sure that any FTAs agreed to now would serve their best interests.

Negative perceptions are building up and further undermining Thaksin’s leadership. If he does not change his autocratic ways, there will be a massive backlash.

The prime minister is trying to shore up his dwindling popularity by going back into populist mode. He has talked to 10,000 taxi drivers in order to win their hearts and minds. He is now in the Northeast on a five-day reality-show tour, on which he would like to send the message that he is close to the grass-roots people. As long as the poor support him, he is safe. But how much longer can he play this role ?

Looking forward, you can expect to see a leader who is increasingly fatigued because he will be unable to push through his policies and agendas like he did before. The pressure against him will mount until he gets tired.

But Thaksin is a great fighter and he will fight back even harder. It is interesting to see how Thaksin is adjusting himself as his popularity begins to go downhill. He may still have a lot of marketing gimmicks up his sleeve, but he no longer has any magic.