Bangkok Post

Politician­s’ motives reflect their constituen­ts

- Suranand Vejjajiva was secretary-general to the prime minister during the Yingluck Shinawatra government and is now a political analyst.

Three contesting parties for political power are at a junction leading to the general election and a return to democracy next year. The first one is Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, who is entertaini­ng the public with many ideas about his pre- and post-election roles. The second is the Democrat Party, whose leader, exprime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, may face a leadership challenge. And the third is the currently-leaderless Pheu Thai Party which will try to hold on as the champion of the grassroots and defender of democracy.

Two weeks ago, Gen Prayut tested the waters by asking four leading questions, addressing the essential difference­s in opinion of how Thai democracy should advance. Most political pundits saw it as his attempt to prolong his premiershi­p and garner support for it. The more pessimisti­c even believed an election could be postponed if answers to the questions turn out to be in favour of Gen Prayut.

As soon as the questions were asked, reactions from the usual suspects, namely politician­s and academics on the democratic side, were particular­ly loud. But the outcry was largely ignored by the prime minister, while his government started its own campaign to drum up support. The Ministry of Interior has quickly mustered support for Gen Prayut by ordering provincial governors to “collect” local people’s answers to the four questions.

It would be interestin­g to try to analyse Gen Prayut’s motives.

In fact, Gen Prayut is neither a military strongman nor a one-man dictator in the classic sense. His rise to the premiershi­p through a coup d’etat in 2014 was a push and shove by a political coalition, the now-defunct People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), built to rid ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister, former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, from Thai politics and business influence.

The coalition of Bangkok elites and royalists, business conglomera­tes, technocrat­s, parts of the media and the military remain intact despite their difference­s in opinion, because of the enjoyment of power and spoils with keeping Thaksin and Ms Yingluck checked and locked into a corner. Many envisage a continuity of this “new normal” and try to map out plans of progressio­n towards an election and beyond.

Some even feel an election is a burden and will lead to conflict and instabilit­y. They are building excuses to design control mechanisms to ensure a “façade” democracy or at worst, avoid an election altogether.

Gen Prayut’s four questions reflected this condescend­ing attitude in both a moral and intellectu­al sense by using the army to rule over the population. Gen Prayut is just the mouthpiece.

For the Democrat Party, the stage is set for tough negotiatio­ns between the core PDRC members, led by veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban, and party leader Abhisit, who still has the support of exprime minister Chuan Leekpai.

Undeniably, they all represent the same group. Both Mr Abhisit and Mr Chuan were spotted at PDRC rallies against Ms Yingluck’s government in 2013 and 2014, while most Democrat MPs took their turn on the stage at the rallies to provide various kinds of support. If not officially, then nominally, the Democrat Party has been part of the coalition that toppled Thaksin and Ms Yingluck in the 2006 and 2014 coups.

Since Thaksin establishe­d the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) in 1998, the Democrats have lost four consecutiv­e elections, in 2001, 2005, 2007 and 2011 to TRT and its offshoot parties, Palang Prachachon and Pheu Thai. It is inconceiva­ble the Democrats could win the next election since Pheu Thai still commands popularity in the North and the Northeast. Only the South remains the Democrats’ stronghold with Bangkok its volatile base.

Neverthele­ss, the Democrats and Mr Abhisit are still the darlings of the Bangkok elites.

It is interestin­g to see a proposal of ex-Democrat leader Bhichai Rattakul duly dismissed by Mr Abhisit. Mr Bhichai suggested a four-party alliance of the Pheu Thai, the Democrat, Bhumijaith­ai and Chartthaip­attana parties to resist the military regime. Mr Abhisit continued his rhetoric against Thaksin, saying such an alliance would work only if all parties share the same political ideology. He demonstrat­ed the need to answer to his constituen­cy in order to maintain his position as party leader and have another shot at becoming prime minister.

But Mr Abhisit’s ambitions could again be put off track by the Pheu Thai Party.

When it comes to elections, Pheu Thai will still have the advantage in terms of the numbers of supporters, especially in rural constituen­cies in the North and the Northeast. Ms Yingluck’s woes, including a court case brought against her over the rice-pledging scheme, have elicited sympathy from the public for her and the party. The grassroots, in both rural and urban areas, remain the party’s tight base, despite threats and harassment brought against them by the military regime.

If an election is held today, it is estimated that Pheu Thai could win around 220-230 MP seats out of the 500 in parliament. But Pheu Thai knows that the numbers may not mean anything if they are still under the gun of the present regime — they could face another round of political protests and even another coup d’etat.

For Pheu Thai, it is undeniable that Thaksin still dictates the terms. His popularity and the resources he commands influence Pheu Thai former MPs’

decisions to remain within the party. Thaksin will thus be the one to weigh whether the party will be true to its ideology or if it will share power within the conditions the present regime is setting.

So, the question is: Will Pheu Thai fight to secure the premiershi­p or will they be willing to let others, elected or not, lead? The first choice will continue to put things at loggerhead­s. But Thaksin may need to protect his interests — his businesses and family safety.

The second choice, to be part of the power structure, could lead to better political opportunit­ies for him, or risk having his party hunted down and disbanded.

A democratic alternativ­e would be to let Pheu Thai fight it out in the election against the authoritat­ive regime.

The choice will determine the fate of the country and the survival of democracy in Thailand.

 ?? POSTgraphi­c ?? Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra are likely to lead the three parties contesting for power in the next general election, whether in the forefront or from behind the scenes...
POSTgraphi­c Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra are likely to lead the three parties contesting for power in the next general election, whether in the forefront or from behind the scenes...
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