What chance of draining this swamp?

What chance of draining this swamp?

The prime minister is getting more than he bargained for as he navigates the murky world of Thai politics

My commiserations to that poor woman who fell into the sewer on her way to work last Tuesday.

What a thing to happen to you. I swear, every time I step on a manhole on the uneven, unhappy footpaths of Bangkok, I worry that something like that could happen to me.

It reminds me of a photograph that appeared in the Bangkok Post many years ago of a female commuter being fished out of a dirty canal by fellow commuters owing to a misstep while boarding a ferry. She plunged into fetid green water. How awful to go headfirst into a stinking canal. How even worse to go headfirst into sewage.

Luckily, this most recent victim was rescued by good Samaritans. I hope that by now she has managed to scrub off the Bangkok sewage and that the putrid odour no longer lingers.

If it's any consolation to her, she isn't the only one embroiled in sludge.

This week saw a return to Thai politics, the likes of which we haven't seen in five years. And the person who appears least happy about it is our brand new prime minister. Footage and photographs have shown him looking somewhat stressed out, with less of the bluster we're used to and more frowning and distant gazes.

We should think of this prime minister as brand new since the old one, who ruled for the past five years, did so as a benevolent dictator. Those days are over, as we apparently had an election on March 24 -- three months ago! -- and thus Thailand is back on the road to being a democracy.

Military rule and democratic rule have never been happy bedfellows, as the prime minister has discovered. Democratically-elected MPs, when they group together in factions, don't kowtow to section-44-wielding authoritarian leaders. They gang up instead.

I feel a little sorry for him. After five years as king of the castle, he now finds himself embroiled in the murky world of Thai-style democracy, as a myriad of self-interested players jostle for 35 cabinet positions in a coalition government.

Uniquely, in Thailand, it's not just apportionment according to number of seats won that determines who gets what in cabinet. If only it were that simple! Palang Pracharath with 116 seats gets half of the top posts while the Democrats and Bhumjaithai each get 25%. Those meddlesome single-seat parties can just sit on the backbenches and do crosswords, thank you very much. They've done their job making up the numbers.

Other variables have further muddied the waters (or added to the sewage if we're being topical). First, there is geography. It was hard enough appeasing Democrat and Bhumjaithai representatives; the prime minister has also had to contend with gangs of southern and northeastern Palang Pracharath factions who wanted to be ministers as well.

This played out over the last week or so, leading to some petulant foot-stamping by MPs from the provinces, doing nothing to dispel public suspicions. Apparently, it was sorted out by Tuesday and those gangs were happy to contend with deputy minister and adviser positions, which kind of defeats the purpose of their spat from the very beginning.

Then there was a third variable, which was the most chilling.

It appears the Thai general public has elected some dubious figures. This is the Bangkok Post's word, not mine. By "dubious" we mean men who are being investigated by the National Anti-Corruption Commission, and others who are seen as "influential", not unlike the infamous Kamnan Poh, who passed away this week.

One wonders how such people got onto the ballot in the first place, since the Election Commission has been so zealous in its scrutiny and nitpicking of other MPs, usually on the opposition. But that is water under the bridge. These dubious MPs have been elected… and now they are demanding top positions according to their "quota".

One way to solve this problem might be to overlook such people, but apparently our new prime minister can't do that. Instead, the "dubious" faction may allow proxies -- sisters, wives, mistresses, cousins, children, the maid -- to assume their ministerial posts for as long as it takes for us to forget their dubious nature.

It goes without saying that the missing variable in this equation is the one that would be the most important in an ideal world. When you hand out ministerial posts according to party quota, geography and proxies, such things as ability and suitability for the position take a back seat. Not even a back seat… they don't even get to ride.

It seems more than a little unfair that, while we're getting saddled with "dubious" politicians who demand cabinet positions that they might not even take up themselves, "honest" politicians are nowhere to be seen. Surely there are at least one or two to be found.

Heaven forbid that suitability be a deciding factor in allocating a portfolio. Imagine a world where the Education portfolio, for example, were given to a forward-thinking academic with knowledge of what needs to be done to bring Thailand into the 21st century. Or the Transport portfolio going to someone who has actually caught buses and trains to work on a daily basis, rather than relying on police escorts through the traffic. Or the Ministry of Tourism and Sports going to a sportsman… or even a tourist.

This is the new playing ground of Thai politics. It's awfully familiar. It's been so long since we have witnessed this scenario, and it has to be said that prior to the coup we had almost become desensitised to it. Five years later, it's all coming back. The politicians are back, and they are back doing what they do best.

No wonder the allocation of Cabinet positions has worn the prime minister down. But glimmers of the old, authoritarian Prayut are still there; on Tuesday, he announced that, while the Cabinet may not be ideal to the general public, there is always the prospect of a reshuffle.

This is not a good start. This is the prime minister effectively saying: "OK, they're not a great bunch. Maybe we can get rid of 'em in a few months, so bear with me, will you?"

This is the plea from our new prime minister, contending with all the thorns and spikes of this Frankenstein system, dealing with all those factions and variables and threats of splits and crossing the floor… it must have felt like falling down into a sewer.

Andrew Biggs

Regular Freelance Writer

Email : info@andrewbiggs.com

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