For the key players, the next election is all about deciding whether to sell their souls.
That is the kind way to put it. Being more direct, we could say brutal and shameless betrayal is in store. Or in polite language: some may be forced to join hands with the “lesser” evil.
Whatever happens, it won’t be straightforward. All of the players will face unattractive choices, but you can’t feel sympathy for them, because those choices are unnecessarily bleak.
Let’s start with the military, or Prayut Chan-o-cha, to be exact. If political reform is his ultimate motive (his “soul”), he faces an acid test. To extend his stay at the top, he will need the support of people he has often frowned upon. And to win their backing, he is likely to have to embrace practices he has often denounced, in public at least.
Simply put, if the Democrat Party shuns him, Prayut will have to woo smaller parties. He will have to make them lucrative offers they can’t refuse, or else they will flock to “the other side”, and his coup in 2014 will in practical terms have been for nothing.
Now to the Democrats. If wiping out the Shinawatras’s influence is their key objective (their “soul”), the country’s oldest party also faces a tough choice. Should it work with Prayut to slam another nail in the Shinawatra coffin, or should it tag-team with Pheu Thai first to oust the bigger problem – the military?
What about Pheu Thai? Two years ago, an alliance with the Democrats was unthinkable. Now, it’s what everyone is talking about. The new unelected Senate’s provisional power to join the lower House in electing the next prime minister means that to keep Prayut out of the way, Pheu Thai will have to all-but control the House – an unlikely event without the Democrats’ help.
The last group is the smaller parties. They don’t have to worry about selling their souls as much. No disrespect to them, but their main worry is political survival, meaning they can always say “screw ideology”. They will likely sell themselves to the highest bidder, be it the military, the Democrats or Pheu Thai.
Prayut could form a new party, but it would be a lot easier to take over an existing one. Either way, he will need to lure conventional politicians to come under his wing. “Conventional” means they would be willing to do whatever it takes to get elected and win Cabinet posts. No matter how much Prayut disdains mainstream politicians, he will need them if he wants to remain in power beyond the general election.
This is where Thais’ hope of seeing a healthy democracy is in greatest jeopardy. Despite the attempts by every reformer to convince us that political reform is extremely difficult, it actually boils down to the simple thing of putting the right man for the people in the right job. A Democrat-Pheu Thai alliance, if successful, would be unlikely to produce a straightforward and honest Cabinet. The same goes if Prayut partners with small parties. A Prayut-Democrat link-up, meanwhile, is best for Prayut politically but bad for the latter in ideological terms.
It’s the modern Thai version of China’s classic “Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. In 2010, protesters backed by Pheu Thai besieged a Democrat government in a bloody showdown, and sent Pheu Thai to an election victory in the process. In 2013, massive protests backed by the Democrat Party crippled a Pheu Thai government, allowing Prayut to take over. Now, Prayut is the most powerful of the lot, and the Democrats and Pheu Thai are well aware that the only way to contain him is through an alliance of epic irony.
But world history shows us that anything is indeed possible. America sided with Russia to finish off the Germany-Japan alliance in World War II, then quickly turned against Russia in a decades-long Cold War during which Germany was Washington’s significant ally and economically powerful Japan was a pro-US bystander. What we have yet to see is a Russia-Germany partnership designed to destroy America – but don’t rule it out.
Politics at all levels is pretty much the same.
Writer’s note: I have personified “democracy” as a character in several of my previous columns. The story behind that decision goes back about a decade and a half to my first such column, which was intended as a one-off. But then I received an enthusiastic response by postcard, sent by someone who apparently read it on a plane. Inspiring me to do similar pieces, that totally unexpected postcard was signed “Surin Pitsuwan”.
May his soul rest in peace.