By The Nation
Dozens of new parties are registering to compete in the next general election, but anyone expecting genuine political reform could be disappointed. Democracy means the “the more, the better” – as opposed to one-party rule or autocracy – but the flaws of the Thai system have failed or disappointed advocates of “big numbers” so many times before.
Indications this time around still give little ground for optimism. Analysts divide the new parties into three groups: those obviously supporting a return to power for Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha, those ready to go with the flow as long as they are included in a new coalition government, and those presenting themselves as “new alternatives”.
To critics of horse trading, which has hampered rather than benefited Thai politics for decades, the potential line-up of contestants may set alarm bells ringing. Parties in the third category – “new alternatives” – are not actually anything new. Parties have made the same claim for themselves at most previous elections, but have given way, without fail, to dismally familiar agendas.
Thailand needs quality, not quantity. Responsible politicians have an imperative to act towards democratic development. If the country is to escape its vicious circle of coup-bloodshed-uncontrolled democracy-coup, it must start with the probity of elected politicians. Merely condemning military intervention does nothing to advance genuine political reform. The crisis in Thai democracy is fuelled by two problems: corruption and the unabated tendency to place the wrong men in important jobs that results from horse trading.
Integrity of elected politicians is thus the key to breaking the vicious circle. New anti-corruption standards and strict adherence to them will remove any reason or pretext the military can offer for staging a coup. Appointing ministers on merit will enhance government work, meaning elected representatives have the strongest justification for their existence.
Thailand has witnessed the exact opposite over the past few decades. Anti-graft measures and crackdowns have been politicised to target political enemies, while nepotism often obstructs any effort to have big fish punished. The appointment of ministers has been more or less dictated by horse trading, political expediency and favouritism.
Small parties have played a significant role in the malfunctioning of the system, occasionally even triggering constitutional amendments to reduce their bargaining power. But restricting small parties can backfire, too. Thaksin Shinawatra, whose downfall remains the crux of the current political crisis, was accused of taking advantage of such amendments in order to boost his own political domination. A swathe of opposition politicians had to come under his wing, leading to what critics described as a leadership that could not be taken to task for any wrongdoing.
Thailand is now at that point again, with political giants competing for control and ready to offer small parties rewards for their support. And since the stakes are even higher this time, the offers will likely be more tempting.
Many are hoping the election delivers a “quick solution” for Thailand’s problem via a slap in the face for the military. But the reality is that a simplistic pro-democracy/anti-dictatorship scenario is no substitute for genuine reform of elected politicians.
To cultivate real democracy, we must begin with those in power, not opportunistic outsiders. The new parties may argue that they are just small fish in a big pond, but the Thai tradition of going with the flow has proven to be destructive, irresponsible and cowardly.