How to stifle Thai political party system
No compromise is in sight for Thailand's politics where the stakes are at their highest. It is a winner-takes-all reality. The quick demise of the Future Forward Party and the 10-year ban for its key leaders, who phenomenally captured a large swath of the electorate less than a year ago on an aggressive reform agenda, bear myriad and far-reaching implications.
The broadest fallout from the FFP's dissolution and disenfranchisement of its 6.3 million voters by the Constitutional Court last Friday is a concerted weakening and retardation of Thailand's political party system, which is indispensable for any representative democracy. For much of the past two decades, major political parties that have been chosen to represent the Thai electorate have been disbanded at will, with apparently one-sided prejudice throughout.
From 2005 to last year, the political bogeyman for all-around blame was the party machine associated with ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra. The "Thaksin regime", with its crony ties, conflicts of interest and abuse of power, was seen by many as the source of corruption in Thailand's problematic democratic rule. So the Thaksin party machine was dissolved in three major incarnations, first as Thai Rak Thai in May 2007, then as Palang Prachachon (People's Power) in December 2008, and finally as Thai Raksa Chart in February 2019.
For some reason, voters still opted for the remaining Thaksin-aligned banner, Pheu Thai, which happened to come out on top in the March 2019 election but stood no chance of forming a government because the constitution empowered the military to pick one third of parliament, who in turn were allowed to choose the prime minister in parliament. While Thai Raksa Chart was a complementary party to Pheu Thai, Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon won big in 2001, 2005 and 2007, and they had popular votes of 19 million and 14 million, respectively, at the time of their disbandment and consequent disenfranchisement of their supporters.
Other smaller parties that joined the Thaksin-aligned coalition governments over the years also faced the judicial axe, including Chart Thai and Matchimathippatai. Although it was dominated by old-style politicians and patronage networks, Chart Thai was established in the early 1970s, backed by a host of constituencies in the Central region. Its demise, like those of Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon, was symptomatic of opposing efforts to keep Thai political parties and their leaders enfeebled and unstable. When stronger parties were not allowed to institutionalise and expand but nipped in the bud instead, political power inevitably resided with unelected institutions in the military, monarchy, bureaucracy and judiciary.
This brings us to the FFP. Notwithstanding controversies about the court's verdict over what constitutes a "loan", the FFP was the first successful anti-establishment electoral vehicle to rise from outside the Thaksin party machine. Supported by younger voters under 40 who had become sick and tired of the old anti-Thaksin/Thaksin yellow versus red, which wasted more than a decade when Thailand was stuck at home and made little progress abroad, the FFP stood for reform and adjustment of the constitution, military and economy.
The FFP was against the big business oligarchs that had been thriving since the military coup in May 2014. The newcomer party wanted to abolish outdated military conscription and bring military budgets and procurement projects to account. It favoured decentralisation and land reform, generally promoting transparency and accountability of the political system and a fairer shake for stakeholders in the Thai economy.
Its dissolution is arguably the worst blow so far to Thailand's political party system, even though FFP's voter base of 6.3 million is less than half of Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon's. While it offered innovative policies, such as housing, healthcare and rural credit, the Thaksin-aligned parties ultimately derived from within the same old electoral landscape that was driven by patronage and vested interests.
But the FFP was completely fresh. None if its 81 winning MPs had been elected before. This party was supposed to be what Thai politics had been looking for. But when it arrived, it was duly decimated. Its leader, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, was not even accorded a working day in parliament, having been suspended almost as soon as the election was over. His later disqualification as an MP was a telltale sign the party would suffer the same fate. While it lasted, FFP stalwarts, led by party secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul, breathed fresh air into parliament with reasoned and researched oration and argument.
The lesson for fresh faces and new talent who want to enter parliament to lead Thailand in a forward direction is simple -- don't bother. The 10-year ban on top of party dissolution, twice as long as for Thai Rak Thai and Palang Prachachon executives, is designed to send an additional message to aspiring representatives of the Thai people that this is the fate for those who rock the boat.
Thailand's parliament -- with its gatekeepers and guardians in the Election Commission, National Anti-Corruption Commission and Constitutional Court, among others -- simply don't welcome new ways of thinking and doing things. Somehow these agencies have seen fit over the years not to dissolve political parties aligned to established centres of power, such as the Democrats and Palang Pracharat. Judicial dissolutions of political parties have largely gone one way against parties that posed a perceived threat to the conservative status quo.
Related to this immediate implication and undermining of democratic institutions, particularly the political party system, is the loss of faith among those who want reform and change for a better Thailand. If parliamentary avenues are not available, they have few options other than to tune out and put up with a disguised authoritarian government that is mismanaging the economy and leading the country in the wrong direction. Or, they could seek extra-parliamentary ways to have their say because there is no other choice.
Either way, what passes as Thailand's version of democratic rule under authoritarian disguise is at a turning point. Unless this country finds a way to calibrate and shift course to a more pluralistic and promising way forward for economic development, income redistribution and public participation, it risks sinking into longer-term autocracy and relative economic stagnation.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, PhD, teaches at the Faculty of Political Science and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University.
An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University
An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.