'It's time for reform. Why can't the government accept that'

opinion February 07, 2014 00:00

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Abhisit Vejjajiva tells Bloomberg's Haslinda Amin that Thailand can only prosper through free and fair elections brought by corruption-beating reforms

Khun Abhisit, did you vote?
No, I didn’t because I think the elections are unconstitutional. The Election Commission has submitted that it cannot hold free and fair election according to the Constitution. It’s clear that the election cannot deliver a parliament with a quorum. We have insisted for a number of weeks now that the best way forward for the country, rather than wasting Bt3 billion and risking the lives of people, is for the government to recognise the need for a postponement.
But how can the Democrat Party function in the name of democracy without observing the whole democratic process?
Well, I think free and fair elections are important for democracy.
But it is free and fair, according to the prime minister.
The election commission said clearly that in the current circumstances, it cannot hold a free and fair election. It recommended [postponing the poll] to the prime minister and she refused. It has taken this to the court and the court said it is within the power of the prime minister, after listening to the Election Commission report, to postpone the election. We are not saying no to elections, we are saying free and fair elections, and we have to build the circumstances to make sure that happens. 
You are contesting the same Constitution you observed when you were prime minister. Why it is no longer good enough for you?
We are not contesting anything in the Constitution, unlike the current prime minister, who has refused to accept a verdict of the Constitutional court, who has refused to accept the Constitution and yet is willing to take power from the Constitution. We respect the Constitution, we respect the law, we haven’t engaged in election fraud. We accepted all of the verdicts of the Constitutional court and Election Commission. We are following the law.
But why must the government step down when it was legitimately elected with the votes of 16 million people? 
They had that mandate, they ran the country for two years and then they betrayed the mandate, betrayed the trust of the people by trying to push through the amnesty bill, which they said they campaigned on during the election, but did not. And that led to mass protests. They dissolved the House and announced a caretaker government. The caretakers cannot pursue policy, so if the people are demanding somebody they can trust to oversee the election after some initial reforms take place, why can’t the government make some sacrifices to ensure the country moves forward?
Why has the Democrat Party backed the anti-government protest led by Suthep Thaugsuban?
People protesting on the street are doing so on their own initiative. Suthep and the protest leaders have resigned from the Democrat Party because they want to be an independent movement. We are saying we no longer tolerate Thaksin [Shinawatra] and this Thaksin-supported government and we think it’s time to have some key reforms, not just free and fair elections but also that our democratic process should not be abused by people like Thaksin and Yingluck.
Do you agree with strategy adopted by protesters?
I don’t agree with all that the PDRC does. I don’t agree with all of their demands, but I can understand the anger and frustration of people over corruption that is taking place, and the anger at intimidation of political opponents which has been going on for I don’t know how many years now. They are freezing people assets, threatening us with arrest warrants. There are serious shootings and grenade attacks on opposition politicians. This should be stopped to get the country out of the circle of conflict and violence that is hurting Thailand, that has hurt people economically as well. It is time for reform. Why can’t the government accept that?
How do you see your political career?
My political career is not as important as the direction the country is taking. It’s time we took a new direction. We need fresh reforms, we need fresh rules to move ahead. 
Can you lead the country in this direction, with the international community watching?
It’s up to the people, the Thai people. 
How do you view the international community?
Why does the international community not mind abuse of power like extrajudicial killings in the South, the war on drugs?
Two wrongs don’t make a right.
What have I done wrong? I respect the law. I respect the Constitution. I am exercising my rights. 
But democracy is in question however you look at it. 
Democracy is in question because democracy has been abused by Thaksin’s governments. Now we are going to put that right by having a sustainable democracy, one that works for the people, not for one family via corruption and abuse of power. 
What do you say to people who say you have a different concept of democracy.
I think in every democracy you have to have the rule of law. You don’t allow the majority to put themselves above the law. Tell me in which democracy do they allow that? We don’t. The international community cannot just pay attention to democracy at election time. They should see how the government of majority doesn’t attend Parliament, doesn’t answer questions in the House, is not accountable, puts itself above the law and doesn’t accept court verdicts. 
PM Yingluck says she wants negotiations. Is the Democrat Party willing to make concessions? 
That is not true. She has preconditions [for talks]. We can’t discuss the election postponement, we can’t discuss the government’s caretaker status. There is no point talking, with preconditions like that. We are open to ideas from any political party with real commitment to reforming and giving people back their trust in the election process. That’s all we are asking for, but she refuses. 
We have a map showing how Thailand is deeply politically divided. Where is the solution to this problem? 
There should be common ground [formed of] respect for rule of law and the democratic process. The Yingluck government won a majority. It was allowed to run the country. But the Yingluck government said people in areas who didn’t vote for her would not get development or budget funds, or their projects were cancelled. Is that how you respect the people’s rights in a democracy? We respected her right to a mandate. The protest only erupted because she betrayed that trust. There is plenty of middle ground: people only need to respect the law and the [reform] process and we can move ahead. 
Can there be a solution to this crisis in the near future?
There is, but the prime minister has to take that first step of admitting that this election is getting us to nowhere, that there need to be talks, a postponement, and that she might have to step aside so that people have faith in a free and fair election.
What will you do if you return to lead the country?
I will have to push forward reform that is very much needed right now to get rid of corruption and move the country forward so that we can actually fulfil our 
economic potential. 
The above are excerpts of an interview for Bloomberg Television’s “On the Move”