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Last Updated: Friday, 4 February 2005, 12:53 GMT
Traditional ties to decide Thai poll
By Tony Cheng
BBC, Bangkok

Somchai Pase Prasert
Local leaders like Mr Somchai are key to the election outcome
Somchai Pase Prasert is the type of politician you want on your side. With five consecutive campaigns - and five consecutive victories - behind him, he is not a politician who likes to lose.

At 8am he is already out on the campaign trail in the countryside near his hometown of Pak Chong, deep in the agricultural region of Isaan.

This is the engine room that drives Thai politics.

Away from the beautiful resorts that have made Thailand famous, the harsh countryside is home to millions of Thais who work on the farms and in the factories that make it the second fastest developing country in Asia.

Somchai is keen to stress that it is policies and not personalities which are working for his constituents. As a member of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party, he is also stressing the government's economic record.

I vote for the man not the party
Arunsi Sitongrungthep

"At Thai Rak Thai, we have many policies. We want to solve the problems of the poor people because their standard of living is not very high. But after four years, Thaksin's come and [income] is up to about 110,000 baht per head ($ 3,000) per year," he said.

It is a message that is selling very well with voters, and the prime minister and his party seem to have an unassailable lead in the polls.

But Somchai is not quite the devoted party man he appears.

"I've run for four different parties, but I like Thai Rak Thai best of all because they represent the people", he said.

His constituents do not appear to mind which party he represents.

"I vote for the man not the party," says 50-year-old Arunsi Sitongrungthep, a fruit seller in the market town of Pak Chong.

"I first voted for Mr Somchai when he was a Democrat, and I've supported him ever since. If he changed party, I'd vote that way too," he said.

Local ties

This is typical of the allegiances that bind Thai politics.

In the countryside, far from Bangkok, it is local knowledge and family history that wins votes, not flashy new populist policy.

Mr Somchai was a policeman who attended training college with Mr Thaksin. Both men come from the same class of educated, entrepreneurial Thais who have always controlled the Kingdom's countryside.

And without Mr Somchai's backing, Mr Thaksin's party would have little chance of taking the Pak Chong seat.

Just out of town is the Nana regional hospital. This is home to one of the government's most popular policies of the past four years, the 30 baht healthcare scheme.

Waiting room at Nana regional hospital
The government says its healthcare scheme is winning votes

Patients are admitted and treated for a flat rate of 30 baht, just under $1. That covers everything from a nasty cut, to a triple heart bypass operation.

The waiting room is packed, but according to hospital director Tirapong Udomwhet, the budgets are not as healthy as he would like.

"We have problems with money. The problems stem from the allocation of the money, because it's based on the number of people treated in the hospital, but we don't have enough beds," he said.

But Dr Tirapong is optimistic that things will get sorted out if the government wins a second term.

"It's up to the health ministry to make adjustment to the policy, because it is a good policy that helps rural people. I think in the next six years it will really start to work," he said.

The real threat to our power comes from those people who are angry with Thaksin taking too much power for himself
Somchai Pase Prasert
And this suggests that, for all Mr Thaksin's claims to have changed Thai politics, his party's success in Sunday's election will be down to the same traditional power bases that have always run Thai politics, now grouped together under the banner of his Thai Rak Thai party.

Mr Thaksin is the first Thai prime minister to serve out his elected term of office, and according to business analyst Andrew Stotz, that is good enough to win the backing of the real powers that matter in politics.

"As far as big business is concerned, the main thing that they like is that it's a stable government, it's a government that's not changing all the time, it's relatively easy to understand and it's a government that's interested in getting things done," he said.

That continuity looks to be assured, with opinion polls predicting an easy win for the incumbent.

But as Khun Somchai gets ready to head back onto the campaign trail, he said that Mr Thaksin's biggest threat is from within.

"If we want to keep power, he's got to keep everyone inside the party happy. The real threat to our power comes from those people who are angry with Thaksin taking too much power for himself," he said.

That message seems to suggest that for all of Mr Thaksin's radical new approach, things in the murky world of Thai politics have barely changed at all.

Thai election: Overview
04 Feb 05 |  Asia-Pacific
Thailand's restive south
23 Dec 04 |  Asia-Pacific

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