What on earth is going on in Thailand

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was criticized for retaining ownership of Shin Corp.  So he sold it, but his opponents complained that he had sold it to a Singaporean company and not paid tax on the proceeds.  They stepped up their campaign to make him resign, and Thaksin called their bluff by announcing an election.  Now his opponents say they will boycott the election.

And so it goes on.  Nothing Thaksin says or does (short of resigning) will satisfy his critics, and yet if he should resign there is (as far as I am aware) no obvious successor. 

I find myself agreeing with The Economist (subscription required) - Thaksin may be a dodgy character, but he was democratically elected and it would not be a good thing for him to be forced out of office:

THIS newspaper has never been a great fan of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's embattled prime minister. His rise to power was fuelled by money, and his money obtained in part by patronage. When, in early 2001, he was on the point of winning his first election, we compared him to Italy's Silvio Berlusconi. It was not intended as a compliment.

In office, Mr Thaksin has been a mixed blessing. He has handled the economy reasonably efficiently, and has therefore managed to afford the extravagant handouts with which he wooed the rural electorate in 2001, and again last year. In other spheres, though, his touch has been much less sure. Sheer governmental incompetence, for example, is the main reason why discontent in Thailand's Muslim south has bubbled over into insurrection and bloodshed.


The danger in Thailand is that Mr Thaksin's foes will try to achieve through “people power” what they do not have the numbers to achieve at the polls, or that the army will revert to its previous habit of interfering in politics. In either case, it would not be Mr Thaksin who is democracy's enemy, but those who refuse to accept that he has won an electoral mandate.

If Thailand was a more mature democracy all this would be about as relevant as the Republicans impeaching Bill Clinton, but it isn't, and so the stakes are a bit higher.  Like The Economist, I don't feel entirely comfortable with supporting Thaksin against "the people", but really there is no alternative.  I hope it all gets sorted out one way or another.

Swings and roundabouts

Well, I'm still not quite sure whether the British General Election was as dull as it seemed - a national swing from Labour to Conservative of 3% was obviously not enough to change the government, but underneath that there were more interesting things going on.

Mainly, as far as I could see, the unwinding of the unspoken deal whereby Labour and Liberal Democrat voters tried to keep out the Tories.  More than anything else, this was what gave the Labour Party such a landslide in 1997 and 2001, but the electoral system still seems to working in their favour (only 36% of the votes, but 55% of the seats).  The Conservatives still have a mountain to climb - if they gained three times as many seats next time even that wouldn't give them an overall majority.  And, if you assume that Iraq will be forgotten in 4-5 years and Gordon Brown might be more acceptable to many who voted Lib Dem yesterday, the Conservatives could be in for a long wait.

I watched some of BBC World's coverage this morning.  Rather than simply giving us the same coverage as you would get in the UK, they stick a few people in a small studio and do their best, with odd snippets from the main BBC coverage (mainly the excitable Peter Snow).  The logic seems to be that we need someone to tell us that Manchester in a large city up north and to explain terminology such as "hung parliament". 

Yes, a hung parliament.  Although the BBC/ITV Exit Poll was actually very accurate, Ivor Crewe kept insisting that the early results indicated that Labour would lose its overall majority.  This sounded mad at the time, and now I think we can put it up there with that marvellous Zogby prediction of the Presidential Election, filed under "delusional".
As now seems to be traditional, the Conservative leader announced his resignation the day after the election.  Their problem, however, is that the membership of the party will elect someone else who is far too right-wing in his place.  I can't help feeling that they'd have been better served by an even heavier defeat to bring them to their senses.  Bring back William Hague, that's what I say.

Only joking.

Election News

This is from The Times e-paper, and it's been there for at least four hours.  If this is really an exact copy of what's in the printed newspaper (which is what it's claimed to be) then they've got big problems:

BLAIR will return to Street for a record Labour term today, but sharply reduced majority, as low as 66, according an exit poll last night. cent the the the its

Iraq war effect appeared taken its toll as the ITV poll suggested that previous majority of been slashed — its accuracy was in Exit polls have been in the past and this one take account of millions votes. so, the projection took political parties by surprise. translated into votes, it give Labour 356 seats, from 409 in the last Parliament, and the Conservatives gain of 45. Such a result take the immediate pressure Michael Howard but it only the level of seats by Michael Foot’s Opposition in 1983. biggest surprise from the involving 16,000 voters at polling stations, was its that the Liberal would win only 53 For that reason, it was being treated with caution. seemed little doubt Labour had won. Mr Blair out a Cabinet reshuffle He is expected to his three chief ministers — Gordon Brown as Charles Clarke as Secretary and Jack as Foreign Secretary. his majority has been dented, he faces the prospect a tough Parliament with substantial number of “awkward squad” Labour MPs who rarely be relied upon to the Government. Blair’s hopes of pushing a radical third-term would be undermined

Barking (up the wrong tree)

I see that the SCMP is apparently still printing nonsense (paid subscription required) from Simon Patkin. I hadn't noticed his article last Friday (mainly, I suppose because I didn't read the paper that day), but there have been a steady stream of letters to the editor pointing out the stupidity of his views so I went back to find out what he had said.  it was well worth the effort.

It seems Simon is still deeply concerned about the Hunghom Peninsula business (when SHKP and NWD bowed to pressure from campaigners and decided to renovate rather than demolish several apartment blocks).

Capitalism is based on the ethical foundation that man (and woman) must be free to use his mind to express his thoughts and to produce things based on his own thinking. In this way, capitalism alone allows man to choose the values that he thinks will help sustain his life, to rationally create these goods or services and to keep the rewards. This is all the Hunghom developers wanted to do.

It is this system of morality that the state must protect by enshrining the right to life, liberty, property, free speech and the pursuit of happiness. There is no place for mob rule or green theory here - just limited accountable government. For companies, this morality includes protecting the rights of their shareholders above trees and animals to maximise profits.

Trees? Animals? What's that got to do with Hunghom Peninsula?

Simon's idea of the ethical foundation for capitalism is really rather eccentric. If you were to ask people what that meant, my guess is that 99.9% of respondents would say that companies have to act ethically, towards their employees, customers and the general public, and that they have an obligation to consider the environmental impact of what they do. Which is exactly what the two property developers did with regard to Hunghom Peninsula. They made a commercial decision that demolishing perfectly good brand-new apartments was very likely to upset potential customers.

If Simon actually ran a real company I think he would probably understand this rather than claiming that the developers were "brought to their knees". Instead, sitting in his "free-market think-tank" (which I'm guessing is him and his computer in the spare bedroom) he comes up with these total absurd arguments.

Actually, I like to imagine Simon as a small businessman driving through a red light on his way to see a customer. When stopped by a policeman he would explain that he had no choice, because he has to behave rationally and waiting at traffic lights is reducing his profits - and his shareholders would never allow that.

Paint your way to peace

It's sometimes hard to make sense of what is happening in Northern Ireland, but the absurdity of the situation was rather nicely captured by this leader in The Guardian.  In case you haven't been following the story, the DUP (led by that cuddly religious chap, Rev. Ian Paisley) wants the destruction of IRA weapons to be photographed, whereas Sinn Fein is against it.  The Guardian has an idea:

Photography is too literal a medium for representing events that mean such different things. The key is thus to find a more flexible means of portraying the weapons destruction.

The answer to this lies with visual artists. For instance, both communities have vigorous traditions of wall painting. If a unionist painter and a republican painter could witness the act of weapons destruction - alongside the generals and clerics - they could each then paint it as they saw fit. The destroyed weapons would have to be represented accurately, but the remaining depiction would lie with the artists.


I kept half an eye on the election results during the day, but what could be more boring than every single State voting the same way as 4 years ago?

There was some excitement this morning when Zogby called the election for John Kerry, but this looked more like wishful thinking than anything else (the page is archived here since they have removed if from their website). They got a few states wrong (which was understandable), but the oddest part was that they showed Bush with a 2% lead in Ohio but called it for Kerry. Anyway, the end result was their prediction of Kerry winning the electoral college by 311-213. Possible, I suppose, but also unlikely - and quite wrong as it turned out. I can only suppose that they hoped that if Kerry had won Ohio and Florida they would look like geniuses. Instead they look like idiots.

Simon has more on this, pointing out that some of the things that John Zogby said about the election when he was in Hong Kong were not as insightful as they might have seemed at the time:

Undecideds: turns out they probably did vote, given the rise in turnout, but they didn't break for Kerry as expected. Zogby said the candidates get 47% each just for showing up. If you take that then the undecideds broke at least 50/50 or even more for Bush. Obviously he could persuade them.

Turnout: The conventional wisdom was a higher turnout benefits Kerry. Clearly that wasn't the case. Total votes is 115-120 million, well up on 2000, and far above Zogby's critical level of 107 million for a Kerry win. Bush is well ahead in the popular vote so clearly these extra voters broke far more for Bush than expected.

It also turns out that this was the exception to the "rule" that incumbents either win handsomely or get booted out, and that poor approval ratings are an obstacle to winning re-election. Oh, and it really doesn't matter whether the Washington Redskins win, lose or draw.

The truth is that John Zogby had no way of knowing how people would vote, any more than similar experts "knew" how the Spanish electorate would vote in their general election earlier this year or how the British people would vote in 1992. The pollsters massage the figures to try and arrive at a reasonable result, but in so doing they guarantee that the numbers they conjure up are subjective rather than objective. Zogby guessed wrong, and ended up with egg on his face as a result.

Disgraceful? Divisive? Crass?

Conrad has managed to work himself up into a lather of self-righteous indignation concerning something John Kerry said in the final presidential debate.

He finds it "crass" that Kerry should have mentioned that Dick Cheney's daughter is a lesbian "for a vile and divisive political objective". Really?

So is it a secret? No. (from The Observer):

Cheney himself frequently mentions Mary as his 'gay daughter' on the campaign trail when he is trying to paint his party as compassionate conservatives, so being used is nothing new.

So Mary Cheney is totally unconnected with the Bush-Cheney campaign? No. (from The Guardian).

Mary Cheney is the director of vice-presidential operations for the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign. She held a public role as her father's assistant in the 2000 campaign, and helped the Republicans to recruit gay voters during the 2002 mid-term elections.

This has been an election of negative campaigning and personal attacks from both sides on the candidates. By the currently accepted standards this was mild stuff, possibly intended to embarass Mr Bush by highlighting that (in this regard at least) his running mate is more of a compassionate conservative than he is. Cynical maybe, but no more so than usual.

Anyway, Conrad, don't worry - the polls are turning back in Bush's favour. He doesn't need your help.

Meanwhile, The Guardian has started a silly and misguided campaign to get its (liberal) readers to write to electors in the State and ask them to consider the international impact of their vote. Yesterday they printed some of the responses, and, guess what, Americans don't take very kindly to foreigners telling them how they should vote.

Mr Dumb or Mr Haughty?

I watched part of the first Presidential debate on Friday morning. No surprises, really - Kerry is the better debater, whereas Bush has that folksy thing that you either love or hate. I doubt that it changed anyone's mind about Bush, whereas Kerry probably convinced a few undecided voters that he would make a decent President. Initial polls suggest that he may now have closed the gap on Bush, but there is apparently a long history of the candidate who 'wins' the first debate going on to lose the election

Don't worry, I'm not about to start pontificating about the election. Well, not really, but I do find the contrast between the two main candidates quite intriguing.

Maybe George Bush really is dumb. Maybe John Kerry can't make his mind up. Perhaps Bush has the "vision thing" whereas Kerry doesn't. Perhaps Kerry is a good (but dull) public speaker whilst Bush is much better (as long as he remembers his lines).

However, these characterisations strike me as being the product of lazy journalism (probably influenced by spin doctors). Of course it's easy to portray Kerry as someone who can't make his mind up, but the reality is that these are complex issues and his biggest problem is that he thinks out loud and then fails to communicate his conclusions in a simple, easy-to-understand way. Equally, although it's easy to characterize Bush as an idiot, you can't deny that he has achieved a great deal (whether you approve or not).

In truth, I'm not sure I care whether politicians are intellectuals. In fact, many of the most successful politicians of recent years haven't really been intellectuals. It's not hard to see why Tony Blair is Prime Minister rather than Gordon Brown, and equally easy to see why Michael Foot lost the 1983 election by such a wide margin. Yet Foot and Brown are obviously intellectuals, whereas Thatcher and Blair have different strengths. Blair, like Alec Douglas-Home, is said to be fairly hopeless at economics, and Thatcher had other people to do her thinking for her.

And I haven't even mentioned Ronnie Reagan.

Continue reading "Mr Dumb or Mr Haughty?" »

Fair and Balanced

It's amusing to see how some people either wilfully or accidentally misunderstand what is going on. Especially when they regard themselves as experts on the subject.

Take Conrad, for example (you're welcome, I don't want him). If there are two subjects you would expect him to get right, they would be law and politics. He's a lawyer, and reckons himself to be an expert on politics.

Last week he managed to confuse  [link deleted - site no longer available] the Progressive Alliance (PA) with the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB) when writing about Beijing's apparent plans to abandon the former to give more support to the Liberals and the DAB. Earlier, you may recall, he got very confused about the date of the Spanish General Election and very upset about comments made by the opposition leader about John Kerry (Americans, you understand, never interfere in other people's elections).

This week he compares  [link deleted - site no longer available] John Kerry's mixed results in the opinion polls to a 'dead cat bounce'. The point (I think) being that even a dead cat thrown from a high building bounces up in the air, but John Kerry didn't get much of a boost from the Democratic National Convention. In opinion polls we trust...

I suppose we have to ignore Conrad's earlier protestations that he couldn't support George W Bush and accept that he is a highly partisan Republican, but anyone who is following the election surely knows that it's close and Kerry is a serious threat to Bush. One opinion poll showing Bush in the lead proves nothing.

As Conrad surely knows very well, in this election there are very few floating voters. Most people have made up their mind either for or against Bush, and the result is going to be decided by what happens in a few 'swing' states. There is every chance that we will again see a candidate win the popular vote and lose the election (as happened to Al Gore). In short, it's going to be close, and both parties know it and are planning accordingly. It really doesn't matter whether Kerry trails at this stage or leads by 7%. What matters is how people vote in November.

Dead cat? I don't think so.

25 years on - and what might have been

This week we are mainly...celebrating the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher becoming British Prime Minister.

No-one could dispute that her time in office changed Britain: tax rates are lower, trade unions have lost most of their power, and privatisation has shifted the balance from public to private sector - and there is no prospect of any of those changes being reversed in the forseeable future. Also, Britain has moved closer to having what amounts to a presidential system, individual MPs are now controlled to a much greater extent by the party machines, and 'spin' has become a fact of life, three trends that were set in motion by Margaret Thatcher.

Britain was in a fairly poor way in 1979, and whilst it is possible to imagine other scenarios in which things could have improved significantly, there is no denying that the British success story of the last 25 years can be traced back to the changes that were made by the Thatcher government - and the way that Tony Blair has built on that legacy rather than trying to change very much. Gordon Brown's first major decision as chancellor was to handover control of interest rates to the Bank of England, something that you would have expected a Tory chancellor to do. Thatcher's legacy still lives on today.

One of the intriguing things about Margaret Thatcher is that it is easy to imagine circumstances in which she could have failed to become leader in 1975, or having become leader could have a lost a General Election in 1978 and lost the leadership, or having become Prime Minister could have lost in 1983 before introducing the radical policies for which she is now famous.

Continue reading "25 years on - and what might have been" »