Thai premier Chuan Leekpai and Thaksin Shinawatra, the tycoon politician tipped to win the January 6 election, Wednesday appealed to voters' hearts and pockets in their first televised debate.
The two politicians pitched competing visions for Thailand's future as the country struggles to emerge from the 1997 economic crisis.
"I will do everything to help Thai people prosper," said Thaksin, the leader of the populist Thai Rak Thai party.
"I will solve their problems by increasing their incomes, not by increasing debt," he said.
The telecomm magnate, running ahead of Chuan in opinion polls, has been accused of promoting fiscal policies that may derail Thailand's slow emergence from recession.
Thai Rak Thai has proposed a three-year debt moratorium for impoverished farmers, and wants to make the government responsible for handling the mountain of loans owed to banks, ideas many analysts say will reinforce Thailand's culture of non-payment.
Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai meanwhile said he would work hard to prevent Thailand from relapsing into economic crisis.
"Of course, our economy isn't as strong as when the crisis started. We have to look at how we can expand economic growth and make it sustainable," he said. "We must not let another crisis happen."
Thaksin also focused on the fight against drugs and corruption.
Meanwhile Chuan portrayed himself has a trusted leader, playing on an ongoing anti-graft commission inquiry into Thkasin's stint as deputy prime minister three years ago.
"I am honest man and my quality team will work for the benefit of the country," he said, adding that his party was strongly opposed to corruption.
The leaders of two medium-sized parties, the Chart Thai and Chart Pattana, also took part in the debate.
While the smaller parties are trailing badly in the polls, they are expected to play a critical role after January 6 as the major parties race to form coalitions that will enable them to seize power.
During the debate the Chart Thai and Chart Pattana leaders focused on grassroots problems, including the beleaguered agricultural sector.
Analysts said there was no clear winner in the debate, but the real test would be whether the successful candidate implemented his promises -- BANGKOK (AFP)
© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)