Politicians’ motives reflect their constituents
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.