BANGKOK (AFP): Ambitious reforms launched to root out endemic corruption in Thai politics aim to ensure that the January 6 elections will be the cleanest in the kingdom's history, observers say.
But there are fears that with "cash democracy" and patronage politics still deeply entrenched in the country, Thailand is setting itself up for a chaotic aftermath to the ballot as the axe falls on winning candidates found guilty of graft.
The Pollwatch Foundation Thailand expects long delays as the winning party struggles to form a workable coalition, sparking unrest and instability that could paralyse the already shaky economy.
Thailand has made brave and concerted attempts to clean up its political scene, spearheaded by the landmark 1997 anti-corruption constitution, said Chulalongkorn University professor Sunai Phasuk.
"But the new politics and the old politics of vote-buying are clashing, and I don't know that Thailand's patronage system will be defeated," he said.
"Thailand's reformers have created a system that seems like it should ensure a fair election, but too many people are still so familiar with patronage politics that they can't grasp the new way."
The Election Commission, which has powers to boot out crooked politicians and order re-elections in graft-tainted electorates, has collared three candidates for vote-buying and dozens more are in its sights.
With several re-elections in the offing after the coming lower house polls, Pollwatch says there is no chance that a government will be formed within the 30-day limit set out in the new constitution.
"It will take at least two or three months. And in that case, everything will freeze. There will be no investment from abroad and civil servants will not be able to make important decisions," said Pollwatch Secretary Somchai Srisuthiyakorn.
"Instability will become a very serious issue and I think there will be widespread protests."
Many of the protests could become extremely unruly, he said.
In Thailand’s countryside, vote-buying is still rampant, accepted by many as a way of life and virtually the only way for candidates to raise their profile.
The Nakhon Ratchsima Rajabhat Institute, which has been studying the extent of election fraud, estimates that at least 20 billion baht (460 million dollars) in bribe money will circulate nationally during the campaign.
Some Thais doubt whether the Election Commission and other reform-minded institutions will be able to wipe out graft anytime soon.
"We are still years away from a system where candidates appeal to voters by means other than giving out cash," said Chulalongkorn’s Professor Sunai.