Can Thailand rely on the Democrat Party for democracy?
As questions linger over whether an election will take place as scheduled in November this year, coup-maker General Prayut Chan-o-cha has signalled the political game has already begun – by declaring himself a former soldier who is now a politician. That in turn has placed the military’s cosy relations with anti-democratic groups in the spotlight.
At the end of 2017, the Democrat Party, formerly a supporter and beneficiary of military intervention (especially after the previous 2006 coup) began to make a U-turn. The party leadership is now speaking out against the junta the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) and pressing for an election as scheduled.
In the current political landscape, the Democrat Party could be a significant driving force in kick-starting Thai democracy after four years of junta rule. Yet how realistic is it to place the responsibility for democratic progress in the hands of the Democrat Party? The party last won an election three decades ago in 1992, since when its popularity has plunged wit the emergence of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Pheu Thai Party.
Nevertheless, the Democrats maintain a strong power base in the South, source of the vast majority of demonstrators for the People’s Democratic Reform Committee-led protests of 2013-2014. Those yellow-shirt protests led to the May 2014 military coup that sought to orchestrate political reform via undemocratic means.
But with only 6.2 million voters in the South, the Democrat Party would lack sufficient support to win an election. By contrast, the political power base of Pheu Thai in the North and Northeast registered 24.9 million voters at the 2011 election.
However, the South remains important to the successful re-emergence of democracy in Thailand, which can only happen if the Democrat Party shows determination in persuading its constituents that democratic culture and power transitions are the way forward rather than accepting military interventions.
Throughout the ongoing political conflict, the Democrats have continued to undermine the rights of rural voters, especially those in the Northeast, with the rhetoric of vote-buying. At the same time, the party itself has shown it lacks fundamental democratic values and understanding by supporting military intervention in 2006 and 2014. This has intensified the anti-democratic sentiment among its supporters across the country.
“I think elections are good for us because at least we get to choose [our representatives] every four years. Democracy can also help hold politicians accountable as I could see Yingluck [Shinawatra] being scrutinised after she was ousted from office. But with the military [in power] we cannot check them,” said a farmer with four years of compulsory education from the Northeast province of Ubon Ratchathani, expressing why democracy matters to her.
Recently, the PDRC has once again stirred anti-democratic sentiment among its audience with Facebook videos released last month. The clips highlight PDRC political activities and reiterate the perceived necessity of the 2014 military intervention and its crucial role of eradicating the Shinawatra dynasty from politics.
The videos were intended to re-energise both the NCPO and the PDRC’s popularity and prominence and prevent them slipping into the political margins. They used the old political mantra – highlighting their fight against the elected Yingluck government’s abuse of power, and against her brother Thaksin Shinawatra through their platform of anti-corruption, reform and the rebuilding of Thailand.
These may be persuasive for many PDRC supporters, but others have been made sceptical by a series of corruption scandals surrounding the NCPO that have been quietly resolved by military-legal rulings. The most recent case, the luxury watches and other valuables adorning General Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy PM and Defence Minister, have sowed more doubt about the NCPO’s anti-corruption credentials and practice.
As the influence of its mantra against corruption fades, the PDRC believes that its ongoing anti-Shinawatra platform is still an effective political instrument for its allies, the Democrat Party and the NCPO. However, the potential effectiveness of that platform at an election is likely overstated.
Prayut’s declaration that he is now a politician cannot be taken as a confirmation of a November 2018 election, but it leaves no doubt as to the NCPO/military’s intention to maintain a central role in Thai governance and politics. The orders and laws enacted by this government reaffirm the determination of the military to create an illiberal democracy.
It is time for both the Democrat Party and the PDRC to revisit their political strategies and redefine their understanding of democracy, as well as learning to respect the voices and the rights of rural people. Taking such action would help them gain more votes and support from the people though democratic means, but it would also greatly contribute to democratic progress within Thailand.
The right of rural residents in the Northeast and North to help choose the government is already registered; it’s now time for this right to be registered in the hearts and minds of the Democrat Party and its supporters.
TITIPOL PHAKDEEWANICH is dean of the Faculty of Political Science at Ubon Ratchathani University, and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation at the UK’s University of Warwick.