Thailand’s “New Politics” Charade
|Jul 7, 2008|
No longer content with the old slogan of “Thaksin dit khuk, Samak ok pai (Thaksin in jail, Samak out), Sondhi Limthongkul, the core leader of the People’s Alliance for Democracy, has called for a “New Politics.” I heard Sondhi’s New Politics speech delivered from the stage on July 4th, near Government House in Bangkok. It was the 41st day of the People’s Alliance for Democracy’s new round of street protests.
The New Politics turns out to be a startlingly reactionary proposal to move Thailand’s parliamentary system towards a form of appointed corporatism, or what might be called a selectoral democracy. Thirty percent of MPs would come from elections, perhaps one per province, and the rest of MPS would derive from various occupations and associations. Sondhi says the proportion is not fixed, it’s up for debate.
The rationale for wanting to dismantle Thailand’s electoral system is evident: pro-Thaksin forces keep winning elections. And as Thaksin is said to represent everything bad about Thai politics, he can not be allowed to wield power directly or indirectly. Thus, for Sondhi, and it would seem the PAD leadership as whole, there is now a need to bring about a revolution in political representation.
The idea of examining alternatives to electoral democracy is not without some merit, for it is common knowledge that massive amounts of money are required to win parliamentary seats, making parliament a millionaire’s playground and a source of further monopolization and corruption. It wasn’t always so, Sondhi told the rally. In the 1970s socialist politicians in Thailand could get elected on the basis of their ideology and popular support, but the emergence of dirty politics in the 1980s crushed any such possibility in the present.
The New Politics has interesting antecedents. The PAD leadership has clearly been speaking to military figures (this is now well documented in the Thai language press) who tried to stifle the emergence of parliament in the 1980s. Indeed, selectoral democracy nicely fits with corporatist visions of the old “Revolutionary Council”. The Council, to which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was said to have an association, held that elections merely led to parliamentary dictatorship and proposed a form of corporate representation to realize the “general will”.
A former communist, Prasert Sapsunthon, was the inspiration for this Thai appropriation of Rousseau, the French theorist of the social contract. Prasert became a leading intellectual among military circles calling for non-elective forms of democracy. When the Revolutionary Council effectively declared itself a provisional government during the political crisis of 1988 the elected Chatichai government took it to court for treason. It then faded into obscurity, but its ideas have never quite gone away, finding support among small rightist groups and even in some labor circles.
The New Politics is unashamedly pro-military and even codifies the conditions under which military intervention may occur. Sondhi has spoken of four conditions for military intervention: when charges of lese majeste are not acted on; when a government is incompetent; when corruption is rife; when a government betrays national sovereignty.
It is not clear if permissible military intervention according to PAD’s envisaged system of selectocracy is to be in the form of a coup d’etat or the exercise of some new administrative power to compel government agencies to rectify a wrong. But what is clear is that PAD has explicitly sanctioned ongoing military intervention in politics.
Of course anyone looking at the Thai military will know that it is a conflicted organization, with pro and anti-government factions and both corporate and individual commercial interests. How such an organization might work to protect the ‘general will’ of the people is not at all clear, notwithstanding the fact that politicized militaries the world over become deeply corrupt and self-serving. In part the answer for PAD lies in who controls the military. An important feature of Sondhi’s speech that went unreported in the press was the proposal to take the Ministry of Defence out of government control and place it under the crown.
At a time when Thailand is urgently facing the need to institutionalize its politics around public rules, PAD is proposing to formally enhance the power the monarchy.
These proposals have been supported by no less a figure than Phipop Thongchai, a central figure in democratic struggles over the last generation. More absurdly, the New Politics, according to Phipop might also copy elements of North Korea statism, where people receive state housing. It’s a shame they don’t have rights, he noted at the rally.
For many observers, PAD’s latest thinking comes as no surprise. They say that from the start PAD was associated with the opportunistic use of nationalist and royalist discourse in its call for a royally appointed government to replace the Thai Rak Thai caretaker government in March 2006. That PAD should now become an agent of political regression, willing to hand power to the military and bureaucracy flows from the logic of its initial strategy to beat Thaksin with the royalist and nationalist stick.
On the contrary, I would argue that whatever one may make of the early anti-Thaksin movement, its politics were, in part, a form of royal liberalism; it was legitimately concerned with the authoritarian slide during the Thaksin era. And this means that PAD’s current phase is a significant departure from its earlier stance and is of great significance. Most dangerously, PAD’s new turn has the potential to bring to a conservative and reactionary form of corporatism a significant social base. In the 1980s the semi-fascist corporatist politics of the Revolutionary Council were marginalized as Thai politics democratized. The Council became a laughing stock and the organization was dubbed the “Joke Council”. Somehow PAD seems to have reversed Marx’s dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.
PAD’s metamorphosis comes at an odd moment when it seems to be making ground. It played an opportunistic role in capturing the ministerial scalp of Jakraphop Penkair who resigned from office after being charged with lese majeste. It has given support to the legitimacy of the Asset Examination Committee which recently wound up its investigations into alleged corruption during the Thaksin years. Lawyers had attempted to question the constitutional standing of the AEC, but the Constitutional Court affirmed its standing. And if the Office of the Auditor General appears unconvinced of the readiness of many of the cases presented by the AEC, the National Counter Corruption Commission seems ready to take on some of the cases. The recent pastry-gate scandal when Thaksin lawyers were found guilty of contempt of court would seem to further highlight that things are not going Thaksin’s way.
So it is odd that just as its demands are being met, PAD has now put itself at the extreme margins of Thai politics. Many people have already deserted PAD because of its hyper-nationalism and attacks on progressive activists who express views different than its own. Some people have, it seems, been forced to leave. There are reports that speakers from the stage have called on Democrat Party members to leave the rally.
How far PAD has travelled is perhaps illustrated by reference to a rally I observed in the middle of last week. A well known rock star got on stage and called on the spirit of the 1950s dictator Sarit Thanarat to deal decisively with corruption. The best that can be said of that episode is that people were applauding on cue, after four weeks of clapping it’s almost a reflex.
But the PAD leadership has no such excuse, it has embraced a politics so contrary to its starting point that it now looks as bad as that which it sought to slay.
“New Politics” may well be the closing breath of PAD, as those who thought they were fighting for a form of liberal democracy desert its ranks. A protestor I was sitting close to was visibly angry with Sondhi, shouting out “Who are you to abolish parliament?” Actually, that’s an appropriate question for the last generation of Thai politics.
Michael Connors teaches politics at La Trobe University. He is the author of Democracy and National Identity in Thailand (2007). He blogs at