The Nation



Will small parties fade further - or benefit from reform?

Restrictions that stop factions jumping to other political sides have served big parties more than national interest

In the past, they could effect serious political changes. Those were the days when smaller parties had some significant say in Thai politics. There were times when a few "absent votes" at the end of a no-confidence debate forced the ruling party to make Cabinet changes.

Somehow, Thai politics of late has become mostly about the Pheu Thai and Democrat parties, and despite their serious conflict that is not going to change.

A coup and party dissolutions have virtually silenced the bit players. But "bad signs" had begun before the military seized power in 2006. The likes of Snoh Thienthong back then bemoaned constitutional constraints that made it harder for political factions to leave a party. Ironically, those constraints were introduced to help the prime minister, but they turned into some kind of a "shackle" benefiting any ruthless leader.

A few days ago, politicians serving a five-year ban have become free again. We have seen many of them playing a more active role, but it's too early to say how the smaller parties will help chart the course of Thai politics. It has always been debatable whether Thailand needs a two-party system or multi-party arena. Each formula has pros and cons, and we don't expect a conclusion to the debate any time soon.

Most of the bit players have officially or unofficially allied themselves with Pheu Thai. Popular upcountry as a party "for the grassroots", Pheu Thai's record when it comes to allies are not totally decent.

There have been takeovers and claims of buy-outs. While that is do-able in any democracy, it subject Pheu Thai to criticism that it "bought its way to power".

What can the lesser players do? Snoh had been pro-Thaksin Shinawatra, then became vehemently critical of him, only to put himself under Pheu Thai wings once again.

Newin Chidchob was once a darling of Thaksin, only to announce a break-up in a dramatic moment on TV.

Unlike Snoh, half if not more of Newin's mind has been on his Buri Ram football team, which, thanks to his dedication, has become one of Thailand's best Premier League clubs.

There is no particular proposal on how to fit in the bit players. Reform talks have yet to really get serious, but signs are that discussions will revolve around the warring Pheu Thai and Democrat parties. If reform is catered toward both big parties, it will be a mistake.

The bit players need a place to make their stand, and how they will do that must be a serious challenge to everyone involved in charting Thailand's new political course.

Factional politics is what Thai politicians preferred in the past, as it raised their leverage or bargaining power.

Most of the time, factional politics was played out of vested interest. But when MPs had to toe party lines, like having to vote in a no-confidence session, arguments "for" them to be "independent" had the upper hand.

The small parties need to be recognised. Recognition works both ways, though. For the bit players to get a better role that serves national interests more, they need to realise what their "weak points" are. And "weak points" here having nothing to do with their size or number of MPs or number of votes.

To be small in size is one thing, to be "small" in what they do is another.

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