July 9, 2008

Thailands "new politics" Charade

Please click on title to read article on the People's Alliance for Democracy (Phase 2) as it appeared on Asia Sentinel

or click here for Bangkok Post version

The 'New Politics' charade
Bangkok Post 8th July

By Michael Connors

No longer content with the old slogan of Thaksin Tid Khook, Samak Awk Pai (Thaksin in gaol, Samak get out), Sondhi Limthongkul, the core leader of the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), has called for "New Politics". I heard Mr Sondhi's New Politics speech delivered from the stage on July 4, near Government House in Bangkok. It was the 41st day of the PAD's new round of street protests.

New Politics turns out to be a startlingly reactionary proposal to move Thailand's parliamentary system towards a form of appointed corporatism, or what might be called a selectoral democracy: 30% of MPs would come from elections, perhaps one per province, and the rest of the MPs would derive from various occupations and associations. Mr Sonthi says the proportion is not fixed, it's up for debate.

The rationale for wanting to dismantle Thailand's electoral system is evident: pro-Thaksin forces keep winning elections. And as Mr Thaksin is said to represent everything bad about Thai politics, he cannot be allowed to wield power directly or indirectly. Thus, for Mr Sondhi - and it would seem the PAD leadership as a whole - there is now a need to bring about a revolution in political representation.

The idea of examining alternatives to electoral democracy is not without some merit, for it is common knowledge that massive amounts of money are required to win parliamentary seats, making parliament a millionaire's playground and a source of further monopolisation and corruption.

It wasn't always so, Mr Sondhi told the rally. In the 1970s, socialist politicians in Thailand could get elected on the basis of their ideology and popular support, but the emergence of dirty politics in the 1980s crushed any such possibility in the present.

New Politics has interesting antecedents. The PAD leadership has clearly been speaking to military figures (this is now well-documented in the Thai-language press) who tried to stifle the emergence of parliament in the 1980s.

Indeed, selectoral democracy nicely fits with corporatist visions of the old "Revolutionary Council". The council, to which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was said to have an association, held that elections merely led to parliamentary dictatorship and proposed a form of corporate representation to realise the "general will" of the people.

A former communist, Prasert Sapsunthon, was the inspiration for this Thai appropriation of Rousseau, the French theorist of the social contract. Mr Prasert became a leading intellectual among military circles calling for non-elective forms of democracy.

When the Revolutionary Council effectively declared itself a provisional government during the political crisis of 1988, the elected Chatichai government took it to court for treason. It then faded into obscurity, but its ideas have never quite gone away, finding support among small rightist groups and even in some labour circles.

"New Politics" is unashamedly pro-military and even codifies the conditions under which military intervention may occur. Mr Sondhi has spoken of four conditions for military intervention: when charges of lese majeste are not acted on; when a government is incompetent; when corruption is rife; when a government betrays national sovereignty.

It is not clear if permissible military intervention according to the PAD's envisaged system of selectocracy is to be in the form of a coup d'etat or the exercise of some new administrative power to compel government agencies to rectify a wrong.

But what is clear is that the PAD has explicitly sanctioned ongoing military intervention in politics.

Of course, anyone looking at the Thai military will know that it is a conflicted organisation, with pro- and anti-government factions and both corporate and individual commercial interests. How such an organisation might work to protect the "general will" of the people is not at all clear, notwithstanding the fact that politicised militaries the world over become deeply corrupt and self-serving.

In part, the answer for the PAD lies in who controls the military. An important feature of Mr Sondhi's speech that went unreported in the press was the proposal to take the Ministry of Defence out of government control and place it under the Crown. At a time when Thailand is urgently facing the need to institutionalise its politics around public rules, the PAD is proposing to formally enhance the power of the monarchy.

For many observers, the PAD's latest thinking comes as no surprise. They say that from the start the PAD was associated with opportunist use of nationalist and royalist discourse in its call for a royally-appointed government to replace the Thai Rak Thai caretaker government in March 2006. That the PAD should now become an agent of political regression, willing to hand power to the military and bureaucracy, flows from the logic of its initial strategy to beat Mr Thaksin with the royalist and nationalist stick.

On the contrary, I would argue that whatever one may make of the early anti-Thaksin movement, its politics were, in part, a form of royal liberalism; it was legitimately concerned with the authoritarian slide during the Thaksin era.

And this means that the PAD's current phase is a significant departure from its earlier stance and is of great significance.

Most dangerously, the PAD's new turn has the potential to lend a significant social base to a conservative and reactionary form of corporatism.

In the 1980s, the semi-fascist corporatist politics of the Revolutionary Council were marginalised as Thai politics democratised. The council became a laughing stock and the organisation was dubbed the "Joke Council". Somehow, the PAD seems to have reversed Marx's dictum that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce.

The PAD's metamorphosis comes at an odd moment when it seems to be making ground. It played an opportunistic role in capturing the ministerial scalp of Jakrapob Penkair. It gave support to the legitimacy of the Assets Scrutiny Committee (ASC), whose constitutional standing was questioned by pro-Thaksin forces. The Constitutional Court affirmed its standing. And if the Office of the Attorney-General appears unconvinced of the readiness of many of the cases presented by the ASC, the National Counter Corruption Commission seems ready to take on some of the cases.

Just as its demands are being met, the PAD has now put itself at the extreme margins of Thai politics. Many people have already deserted the PAD because of its hyper-nationalism and attacks on progressive activists who express views different than its own. Some people have, it seems, been forced to leave. There are reports that speakers from the stage have called on Democrat party members to leave the rally.

How far the PAD has travelled is perhaps illustrated by reference to a rally I observed in the middle of last week. A well-known rock star called on the spirit of the 1950s dictator Sarit Thanarat to deal decisively with corruption. The best that can be said of that episode is that people were applauding on cue - after four weeks of clapping, it's almost a reflex.But the PAD leadership has no such excuse; it has embraced a politics so contrary to its starting point that it now looks as bad as that which it sought to slay.

"New Politics" may well be the dying breath of the PAD, as those who thought they were fighting for a form of liberal democracy desert its ranks.

A protester I was sitting close to was visibly angry with Mr Sondhi, shouting out: "Who are you to abolish parliament?"

Actually, that's an appropriate question for the last generation of Thai politics.

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