Officially, it's not "populism" (prachaniyom). It's "pracharath". And there is no precise English translation for that. And if there is an equivalent in the Western political world, the term hasn't been popularised. Thai politics has produced another "fir
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Deputy Premier for Economic Affairs Somkid Jatusripitak have been trying to find a new policy that gets help to the rural poor, without it sounding like a populist policy.
Renowned social activist Prawase Wasi was just the right person to fill the gap. It so happens that Somkid and Prawase had formed a “Pracharath Group” long before the political turmoil emerged. Their pressure group created as a non-partisan gathering of activists seeking solutions to the social issues facing Thailand.
“Pracha” means people. “Prachaniyom” means “popular with the people”. It was supposed to be a positive term, until the Thaksin government decided to adopt it for its populist policy, which eventually wreaked havoc on the national budget. It has since been considered taboo, except among some pro-Thaksin politicians, who claim there was nothing wrong with prachaniyom because it was an effective way of lifting grass-roots people out of poverty.
The current power-holders, however, have depicted prachaniyom as a seriously flawed policy that merely served the interests of politicians who used the people’s tax money to buy rural constituents’ votes in the next election.
“Pracharat” is now the official policy pillar. If “pracha” means “people,” then “rat” refers to “the state”. The English translation of the term, as a government spokesman pointed out, would be “State of the People” – somewhat cumbersome and obviously much more difficult to popularise than “populism”.
The prime minister, however, has offered his own explanation to get the message across: “In a sense, pracharath means the prime minister is the ‘rat’ [state] who reaches out to the people for a common agreement to create stability from the foundation up.” Note that he assiduously avoids using the term “grass roots”, which he has branded an insult to the poor.
Then, Prayut delivered a fresh revelation: “Pracharath” was in fact taken from the national anthem and indicated efforts to reduce inequality and to prevent the people from being misguided too easily. “It’s ‘pracharath’ – and not ‘prachaniyom’ – in the national anthem,” Prayut pointed out.
A few academics, including political scientists, have admitted to being flabbergasted by the introduction of “pracharath” as a national policy – and understandably so.
One political scientist at a leading university grappled with the word’s meaning by offering textbook definitions of “populist policy” and “welfare state”, but nothing about “state-of-the-people” as an economic or political platform.
He explained that in some developing countries, populism was a starting point for economic policy before advancing to a welfare state. “Once you have a welfare state, you don’t need populist policy,” he said.
But now that the Prayut government has flown the “pracharath” flag, it’s almost like throwing a spanner into the works. The premier has managed somehow to send the whole country scurrying for a new set of political-science definitions.
When all is said and done though, things aren’t all that complicated. The main reasons behind the coining of the new term are quite simple.
The economy can be invigorated only if the agricultural sector is given a big boost and new money injected into the provinces. However, offering a special budget for the local tambons would naturally conjure up pictures of the “populist” policy that has been attacked by the current government all along. Therefore, the new policy has to be different in both substance and name.
Pracharath has to help boost real production at the local level. It must not create a “dependence culture” for the poor. It must not be exploited for political reasons.
And, perhaps most important of all, it must not sound like a return to populist policy of the past.
But in the end, what’s in a name? The only true distinction between prachaniyom and pracharath will depend on whether the latter can produce benefits for the rural poor via government largesse that also helps build their immunity to future political manipulation.