The huge role small parties can play

opinion December 02, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

The leverage minor actors hold when coalition governments are born is a catalyst for nepotism

Good democratic politics fundamentally comes down to putting the right “man for the people” in the right job. But the practice has always been sorely lacking in Thailand, invariably leading to grave conflicts, bloody street protests and military interventions. The armed forces, meanwhile, have always found it unexpectedly difficult to deliver on their promises to “reform” politics by following that very practice of getting the right man in the right job.

Thailand relies on “two-pillar” politics – two heavyweight factions, one in power and one in opposition. It’s a sound arrangement, but it often makes it impossible to avoid nepotism in developing good government. But then again, two-pillar politics with small parties having the leverage to swing power to either side is no deterrent either where nepotism is concerned. And this could be an unwanted highlight of Thailand’s return to democracy.

Small parties are dreaming big at the moment. The apparently irreconcilable differences between the two largest parties and the perceived ambition of our military rulers to hold onto power are pointing towards small parties playing kingmaker after the next general election. The small parties are expected to win enough seats to tip the balance of power one way or the other. But their good news isn’t necessarily good for those who want to see a sound political system.

Throughout much of Thailand’s modern political history, small parties have been selling themselves to the highest bidders. There were times when they stood up ideologically, but largely it has always been a matter of ugly horse-trading at the expense of the principle of putting the right man in the right job. Simply put, give the small parties the best possible Cabinet portfolios and they are yours.

Thailand’s corruption is deeply linked to nepotism. Sometimes government leaders had their hands forced because they needed support. Sometimes government leaders promoted the bad practice themselves to protect vested interests. It’s hard to predict what will be the case after the next election. It could be both.

If Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha does indeed wish to remain politically powerful after the election, he will face an acid test – is he a true reformer or some malicious schemer? Either way, he will most likely need the support of medium-sized or small parties and, to get their backing, there is little else he could do besides 

offering them lucrative posts.

Corruption and bad Cabinet choices are the ills of Thai democracy, and they often feed on each other. Prayut’s coup was purportedly staged to tackle problems that were responsible for the popular uprising against a badly flawed democratic system. As matters stand ahead of the next election, though, the future doesn’t look promising. The long-awaited ethical overhaul could be in jeopardy when everyone is facing a must-win situation.

We have seen it all before. Coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon sought the support of the very politicians he’d denounced. That courtship played a key role part in triggering the Black May bloodbath of 1992. That Prayut is far more popular than Suchinda does not guarantee Thais will tolerate the wrong men being put in Cabinet jobs.

But the problem of nepotism is not the sole responsibility of Prayut. In fact, if he is dictatorial, as critics complain, his damaging political habits are perhaps justifiable  in a way they would not be if exhibited by mainstream politicians. This means it’s up to the politicians, whether in big or small parties, to eradicate nepotism. If they can do that, they will not only do Thailand a tremendous favour, but also give themselves a solid chance of survival.