By Jack Radcliffe
Thailand’s People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and its supporters spent months on the streets earlier this year demanding ‘reform before election’. What these reforms were going to be was never elucidated, as if mentioning them would perpetually curse them. All we really learned is that the ‘Thaksin Regime’ was bad, that ‘Good People’ needed to be put in place to handle the reforms, and that anybody who voted for anyone but the Democrat party was stupid. Educating the electorate begins with people such as “our own drivers and maids,” said typical-high-society PDRCer Palawi Bunnag.
The protesters eventually got their wish as democracy was brought to an end by the May 22 military coup, with General Prayuth Chan-ocha vowing to continue with the agenda of ‘reform before election’. Now that the ‘Good People’ are in charge again, the PDRC feels safe to reveal its big plans for reform. SPOILER ALERT: They want less electoral democracy:
The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) wants the new charter to abolish the party-list poll system and make the Senate fully appointed, rather than partially elected and partially appointed as it was under the abolished constitution.
PDRC seeks unelected Senate, fewer MPs, Bangkok Post, November 26
Anybody who has been paying attention to this movement for the last decade cannot have been shocked by this revelation, as removing the power of the electorate and handing it over to well-connected aristocratic, military, and bureaucratic ‘Good People’ is the very essence of the oxymoron which is ‘Thai-style democracy’.
The PAD came to prominence in 2006 fighting against the ‘Thaksin regime’ with the request that the king enact Article 7 of the 1997 constitution to appoint a ‘good’ Prime Minister. Thaksin had initially been the choice of the Bangkok elite, still smarting from the Asian economic crisis, with incredibly-well-connected General Prem seemingly helping “Thaksin escape conviction by the Constitutional Court in August 2001, when he faced charges of assets declaration violations”, before relations with Prem’s network turned sour and Thaksin became seen as a hostile entity.
The military coup of 2006 saw former army commander (and privy counsellor) Surayud Chulanont appointed as Prime Minister, and we have been back and forth ever since with ‘Good People’ who are considered as part of what Duncan McCargo calls the ‘Network Monarchy’ pitched against representatives of the ‘Thaksin Regime’. It is useful to unpack these terms to get a better handle on them.
The Thaksin regime is defined as the political parties that have grown out of Thaksin’s original Thai Rak Thai Party (dissolved by the constitutional court in 2007) – the People Power Party (dissolved by the constitutional court in 2008), and the latest incarnation Pheu Thai. It is fairly uncontroversial to say that Thaksin is the man behind all of these parties, financially and ideologically: who could forget the election slogan ‘Thaksin thinks, Puea Thai acts‘. However, while Thaksin has many, many, many faults, his party has won by playing by the rules of electoral democracy and offering voters policies which they seem to like.
The standard retort by those who believe in the inherent right of ‘Good People’ to lead is that Thaksin voters are too stupid to understand democracy, sell their vote to the highest bidder, and that Thaksin’s populism was – shock/horror – wasting taxpayers’ money on creating a welfare state. While the desirability of a welfare state is a matter of personal opinion, research on the reality of vote buying by Baker and Pasuk, and Max Grömping has shown that it has a negligible effect on election results, with people choosing parties based on who they like most, even when they accept money from those who would wish to buy their votes.
Marc Saxer describes what is happening in Thailand as a transformation crisis. The old order refuses to give up power and accept that democracy in Thailand is going to require power sharing between the regions, so we are caught in an endless cycle of coups and elections with the Thaksin regime playing the Emmanuel Goldstein Orwellian-role of being blamed for all of Thailand’s ills. The perceived ‘real Thai’ values of hierarchy and subordination are the values of a particular group of Thais, a powerful minority who have amassed wealth and power through perpetuating the idea that some ‘Good People’ are more Thai than other citizens. The education system and state media have reinforced this belief.
Thailand’s rural subalterns have in this generation seen the benefits of the type of state-assistance that Westerners take for granted, such as access to healthcare. Right or wrong, they see Thaksin as the person who has made their lives better. This may have actually been just well-played politicking by a man whose agenda seems to be to primarily feather his own nest, but the perception still stands. The rural areas are vilified as full of ‘Kwai’ and thieves by the Bangkok-based media, and previous generations’ anti-Communist Party of Thailand assassinations and propaganda targeted mostly at the rural population. I think most people would prefer the state to be providing free healthcare over myths and bullets to the head.
However, as we have seen in 2014, having ‘Good People’ in charge is acceptable for those with a yellow-leaning tendency, even if the ‘Good People’ restrict freedom to unquestioning loyalty and not much else. With the PDRC outlining their desire to limit the power of the electorate and the junta government seemingly focusing its energies on making sure the next generation toes the party line and banning all dissent, the future of Thai democracy does not presently look rosy.
Should an election be called again, the ‘Thaksin Regime’ will win unless some serious manipulation of the electoral system takes place as part of ‘reform before election’ (which is quite possible), or we might not see an election again until the major transition has happened; only time will tell. Either way, there seems no way beyond this ideological impasse: with the tanks, the money, and heavy-duty propaganda tools, the ‘Good People’ will always have the upper hand, no matter what the electorate chooses.
About the author:
Jack Radcliffe is a Bangkok-based anthropologist focusing on contemporary Thailand.