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Urban Thais Cringe As a Wily Ex-General Squeaks by to Power

An ex-Army general with a penchant for rambling speeches and an awkward reputation for having cemented close ties with Burma's military junta, was appointed Thailand's 22nd prime minister yesterday.

His victory epitomizes a dislocation that continues to plague Thai politics: one between wealthy, increasingly modern urbanites and a traditional rural population whose votes are still shepherded by powerful local patrons.

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Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party (NAP) edged past its principal rival, the Democrat Party led by former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, by two seats in close-run elections on Nov. 17. Considered an old-style politician with a strong rural power base, General Chavalit's NAP concentrated its campaign on the populous but poor northeastern region, where money politics and patronage still dominate the process.

Reflecting the gap between urban and rural voters, his party won just one seat in the capital, compared with the Democrat Party's 29. Chavalit's detractors accuse his party of widespread vote buying, though observers say the practice is still common right across the Thai political spectrum.

With little support in Bangkok, Chavalit will have to navigate his new government through a barrage of criticism from both the media and an outspoken urban middle-class, which sees him as the incarnation of an archaic political system that is eroding Thailand's international credibility and slowing down its economy, a symbol of national pride.

Thailand was ranked by the World Bank as the world's fastest-growing economy from 1985 to 1995. Growth is expected to drop below eight percent this year, a four-year low. Exports grew by just 2.4 percent for the first 8 months of this year, compared with 23 percent for the same period in 1995.

While provincial politicians win votes by building roads and handing out cash at election time, Bangkokians take their lead from the stock market. Many remember with nostalgia the economic boom during the 1988-91 government of Chatichai Choonhavan, now a key member of Chavalit's coalition. But corruption reached such peaks that the Army removed him in a 1991 coup.

The previous government of Banharn Silpa-Archa faced heavy criticism for its poor economic performance. During his 14 months in office, the stock market lost 25 percent of its value. A series of financial scandals ended in the virtual collapse of a major local bank and the resignation of the governor of the Bank of Thailand.

Echoing the visible post-election disappointment of many in Bangkok, the stock exchange immediately plunged 5.8 percent last Monday on news of Chavalit's victory. Many investors are also made wary by the inherent instability of Thailand's elected governments. Characterized by shifting alliances, the last three governments have been composed of coalitions cemented only by an often unseemly scramble for political capital in the form of ministerial posts.

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"Even before the present government has been formed they're squabbling over who gets what. I can't see Chavalit's coalition lasting much more than a year," says Youssef El Khouri, a research analyst at Wall Street Securities in Bangkok.

"It looks like just more of the same. It hardly seems worth having had elections," grumbled Chanthana Hinkaew, an office worker here.

Nonetheless, the election of an ex-Army general symbolizes Thailand's slow and erratic transition from military-dominated government to democracy.

Operating in an ideological void, Thai politicians build parties around themselves. Without the glue of party loyalty or any particular philosophy, Chavalit will now be under pressure to hand out rewards to his six coalition partners and deliver results to voters. Considered a shrewd if somewhat enigmatic politician, Chavalit has been careful to send reassuring signals to the business community.

Much will depend on Chavalit's personal leadership skills, honed during a long career in the Army. In his first day in office he is expected to meet with President Clinton during his brief visit to Thailand. His blend of political guile, business experience, and military savvy has prepared him well for the balancing act of sitting astride coalition politics.

One of his political trump cards is a promise that he will call voters back to the ballot box for new elections after 18 months, when a new constitution is to be completed.

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