Thailand needs viable electoral alternatives

After some months of relative calm following turmoil and mayhem in recent years, Thai politics is heating up again.

The government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has suffered a series of policy setbacks, losing momentum and looking embattled as it approaches the midway point of its term.

As government missteps become more frequent and evident, Thailand's quandary of not having a viable electoral alternative over the past decade has come to the fore again.

This is a period when the coalition in and outside parliament arrayed against the Yingluck government and its master and commander, Thaksin Shinawatra, should be shaping and strengthening a party vehicle that could bring it to power through electoral means with a popular mandate. This is not a time to conspire for the ouster of the Yingluck government by all means possible, including extra-parliamentary manoeuvres, as some elements of the anti-Thaksin coalition would have it.

Short of another military coup or further judicial interventions, the change of government in Thailand will be through the ballot box.

It is unlikely the Yingluck government and the ruling Pheu Thai Party would simply resign and make way for the opposing Democrat Party. It is also unlikely that Ms Yingluck and Pheu Thai, under Thaksin's control, would dissolve the lower house and call a snap election in the near term.

And even if they do, Pheu Thai is likely to come out on top by a wide margin again, just as it did in the four elections held since 2001. It is worth recalling that Pheu Thai won 265 seats to the Democrats' 159 out of the 500-member chamber in 2011.

Thaksin's parties have reigned at the polls and to put him down politically will require beating him in Thailand's electoral game, which is the most legitimate and acceptable to the widest number of people both at home and abroad.

The so-called Thai Spring and Guy Fawkes campaigns are venting exercises from frustrated columns that can't get their people to win elections _ effective in keeping the Yingluck government off-balance but futile in seeing the back of it. A true "spring" movement, as in the famous and inspiring "Prague Spring" of 1968 or its Arab offshoots, would be characterised by a popular uprising against an autocratic and illegitimate government, which would quell the protesters by force in turn.

The Yingluck government so far does not fit this mould. It is popularly elected by a majority and its governance has been rather feeble. This is a government that retreats from its pledge to amend the coup-era constitution in the face of judicial intimidation. It is run by a party that has been dissolved twice by the Constitution Court. Many of its members were banned from office for five years and have only just begun to re-enter the fray.

On the other hand, the Guy Fawkes masks have found some appeal. Wearing masks for political expression is akin to anonymity in social media interaction. Those involved do not have to take responsibility and accountability for their views and actions and hence they tend to act more aggressively than otherwise.

As mentioned by many, the Guy Fawkes choice is too ironic and confusing in its logic to be compelling. Thailand's Guy Fawkes campaign carries itself as anti-Thaksin and pro-monarchy foot soldiers but Fawkes the original tried to kill England's King James I in the name of Catholicism.

This faulty logic and analogy are understandable. The anti-Thaksin coalition is desperate to find traction in deposing what they are again calling the "Thaksin regime", reminiscent of 2005-06 before the coup and 2008 before the judicial decision to disband Pheu Thai's predecessor.

This is not the first time the anti-Thaksin coalition, from the ringleaders at the top to the everyday concerned citizen who loathes corruption and cronyism at the bottom, has tried to mobilise and topple the Yingluck government. Their main attempt last year was the Pitak Siam movement that gathered some strength but fizzled out.

They should let the government suffer its own shortcomings. By all accounts, the 20% cut in the rice-pledging price from 15,000 baht a tonne is an admission for all to see of how poorly the scheme was conceived in the first place.

It is the first major reversal of Thaksin's vote-winning and income-redistributing policies. His populist aura will likely be eroded by this backing down on rice pledging. The scheme is still in financial trouble because it cannot control global market prices and other producers.

The government's answer to the air of crisis and mismanagement is the impending cabinet reshuffle, designed to ease political pressure and improve policy performance by bringing in more technocratic hands. The reshuffle will buy time but the road ahead will be bumpy and adversarial as parliament reconvenes in August with controversial bills involving charter amendments, reconciliation and mega-infrastructure investment on the cards.

Unless outside interventions appear from the military or judiciary, Thailand's fledgling democratic process will work and muddle along in ugly and nasty ways. But the alternative will be worse and untenable in the long run, as seen in the military coup and judicial power moves in 2006-2008.

The best way forward for the anti-Thaksin coalition to win back power and for Thailand to stay on its democratic path is to revamp the Democrat Party and possibly consider a third-party challenge to Pheu Thai through a combination of poaching, new talent and realigned factions and party financiers.

The opposing platform can feature relative integrity, fiscal discipline and genuine income redistribution including a tax overhaul. Until another electoral winner is found, the Yingluck government should be allowed to perform under scrutiny and assessment of voters.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

About the author

Writer: Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Position: Director of the Institute of Security and Internat