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Oct 30. 2018
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By Tulsathit Taptim
The Nation

One of the slipperiest and most contentious words in politics is “populism”. Its original meaning was actually noble. It elevated “the people” above the “elites”, who constituted a far smaller group and were self-serving and corrupt.

Things have changed, and these days few politicians want to be branded populists, a term now associated with demagoguery and leveraging the state budget to gain political support.

The term will become a buzzword during campaigning for the Thai general election. We will be hearing it left, right and centre. Parties will use it to discredit their rivals. Members in those same parties will use it in the battle for control of the helm. Some will accuse others of being hypocrites – in other words “anti-populism” on the surface but heavily populist at core. Everyone will accuse everyone of planning to “buy” electoral loyalty.

In the fight to lead the Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva’s main challenger Warong Dechgitvigrom has vowed to push for “welfare democracy”. In essence, Warong is saying that Thailand must make big changes if it wants a genuine “welfare state”.

Abhisit’s camp has hit back with a stock response: Of course, we want to help the poor, but how far should we go? If welfare means helping underprivileged people, we have been providing it from day one. But we have tried to spend the national budget judiciously.

The two sides have launched into open debate over the elephant in the Democrat living room. Abhisit, backed by respected former PM and ex-party leader Chuan Leekpai, insists that the party’s two decades of election failure stem from Thaksin Shinawatra’s money more than anything else. Critics, including certain Democrat members, disagree, saying that Thaksin only amplified the party’s failure to reach out to the poor.

The question of whether Thaksin is a populist raises another question. Isn’t military-backed Prayut Chan-o-cha just the same? If Thaksin is at fault for using “populist measures” to win support and shield himself from scandals, isn’t Prayut doing exactly the same? The prime minister is not popular among Thaksin’s fan base, so what he has done is implement measures purportedly to “help the poor”. What’s the difference?

In politics, “right things” are often done for the wrong reasons. “Populist” measures by a government fall into that category, say many observers. We regularly see national leaders trying to dig their way out of trouble by “pleasing” poor people. And when a policy is financially beneficial to the poorest in society, it’s hard to argue against it.

In advanced democracies, politicians squabble over percentage points. In some cases, elections are won over whether tax should be increased by 1 per cent or 0.5 per cent. It’s a “How far should we go” populism debate all the same.

In Thailand, the choice is more likely to be between “free” and “cheap”. And the argument over populism often gets laughable. Believe it or not, the first public spat between Prayut and Pheu Thai prime ministerial hopeful Sudarat Keyuraphan is over whether government measures have done enough to protect the dignity of the poor. 

Sudarat slammed the Prayut administration’s “welfare card” for insulting the underprivileged and aggravating the sense of a rich-poor divide. By contrast, Thaksin’s initiative had been practically universal, she said. 

She failed to mention, though, that not everyone was using Thaksin’s card, especially not the rich and the upper-middle class.

Prayut retorted that Sudarat was stuck in “old-style” counterproductive orthodoxy which saw any policy not created by her camp as bad. He insisted his government only wanted the poor to have cheaper access to basic necessities such as transport and electricity.

The Abhisit-Warong and Prayut-Sudarat battles are the only beginning. The hair-splitting will intensify. The thin line between “welfare” and (bad) “populism” will get thinner still. More contentious policies will be introduced as Thailand gears up for what looks like another winner-takes-all political showdown.

On the surface, democratic politics are supposed to be this way: winning power by luring voters with the best promises. In reality, though, the noble origins of populism have morphed into something else entirely. The lures are becoming more and more contentious, and citizens are having to pay a bigger and bigger price, whether they know it or not. 

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