Double-edged sword of democratic hope

Double-edged sword of democratic hope

Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt speaks to media and supporters at a poll results event on the gubernatorial election day, May 22. (Photo: AFP)
Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt speaks to media and supporters at a poll results event on the gubernatorial election day, May 22. (Photo: AFP)

Thailand is not new to virulent exchanges of polemical opinions between supporters of opposing political factions on social media and beyond. However, the latest outcry from diehard fans of the newly elected Bangkok governor Chadchart Sittipunt against unfavourable criticism, proves one thing -- Thais still have much to prove before calling themselves democratically reasonable interlocutors.

The spark came from a Facebook post by former secretary-general of the pro-democracy Future Forward Party and former Thammasat University law professor Piyabutr Saengkanokkul on July 1, outlining Mr Chadchart's ideological leanings.

What was intended as constructive criticism ended up drawing the ire of Mr Chadchart's zealous supporters. The controversy that unfolded and the fervent sentiments encircling it left me pondering about the "train of (democratic) progress" Mr Chadchart's electoral victory was supposed to set in motion.

Not so long ago, what can be deemed as the "pro-democracy front" of netizens appeared close-knit in their criticisms of the Prayut Chan-o-cha government, the ultra-nationalist spirit it embodies and its legions of chauvinistic supporters. But with the latest tide of sentiments gaining ground, it seems like Mr Chadchart -- no longer antipathy towards chauvinism -- has become the new locus of democratic solidarity. The upshot is that the slightest deviation from "Chadchart fever" risks cancellation -- no matter how sound in reasoning or anti-chauvinist in character the person being cancelled is.

Diehard fans of Mr Chadchart were enraged by what they perceived as Mr Piyabutr insinuating the promising governor as a conservative -- a label which has become rather derogatory among aspiring Thai democrats.

The fact is Mr Piyabutr merely linked Mr Chadchart's latest view on public transportation to neoliberalism -- thus placing Mr Chadchart in the camp of free market capitalism. And although Mr Piyabutr described neoliberalism as inadequate, the discussion he intended to stir was not directed at the person as much as the ideology. This is opposite from the spiteful reaction it evoked, which mainly reads: "Don't be ridiculous, Piyabutr!" or "You're just a lawyer, so go meddle elsewhere!"

Whether or not Mr Chadchart is indeed a conservative or a neoliberal as argued is a contestable matter. What should be less contested is the candour and spirit with which Mr Piyabutr presented his argument. It was not as counter-productive or counter-democratic as Facebook comments portrayed it. On the contrary, such critical appraisal fosters public scrutiny and inclusive dialogue -- the cornerstones of any liberal democracy.

Mr Piyabutr even assured that Mr Chadchart's ideological profile did not have the same conservative tinge to it as that of the ostensibly less democratic Gen Prayut. Being conservative is not invariably undemocratic. Rather, what is undemocratic is circumscribing the ideological pluralism of a diverse citizenry by narrowing the circle of involvement to include only Mr Chadchart's fandom (even if this fandom is steadily expanding). That is to equate democracy with Mr Chadchart himself!

At this stage, one might ask whether I am being too harsh in my assessment of the Bangkok governor's zealous supporters. After all, these people have waited tirelessly for politicians like Mr Chadchart to assume democratic leadership, even if such leadership is limited to gubernatorial politics. Make no mistake. Thais deserve to relish the fact that Mr Chadchart has become a beacon of democratic hope, but I dare to say that there is also something dangerously chiliastic about this.

According to chiliasm, all would be good after the messiah's awaited arrival. Situating this in relation to the specificity of the Thai experience, Mr Chadchart's arrival signalled that things will definitely be better not just presently but also for posterity.

Mr Chadchart's impressive work ethic and past record, amiable character and progressive view of politics make him a highly esteemed and democratically promising figure in Thai politics. Extensive public coverage of Mr Chadchart both before and during his electoral campaign not only transformed him into a viral sensation but also conveyed his messianic status.

Context is crucial here, since the "certain evil" that anguished citizens are "waiting to be delivered from" is none other than the Prayut regime and a political culture that heralds chauvinism among other things. Mr Chadchart's timing casted him as the antithesis of Gen Prayut.

In a Facebook status by political science professor Kasian Tejapira, Mr Chadchart is crisply summarised as already setting a new bar for Thai leaders, whereas Gen Prayut only manages to cling on to power through military backup and whatever rotting remains of his followers are left.

Therefore, just as Christ was the messiah for some weary Christians, Mr Chadchart seems destined to counteract whatever iniquities undemocratic leaders have to offer, which often include pitting citizens against one another.

Ironically, Mr Chadchart's cult following -- which should not be accredited to Mr Chadchart but rather the dire circumstances from which it spawned -- did more to stoke witch-hunts within the pro-democracy front than treat them as sins to be overcome. Anyone who showed the slightest intention or sign of thwarting Mr Chadchart's progression was accused of heresy and consequently cancelled. And while the ensuing purges are understandable, they are not necessarily justified from a democratic standpoint. Internal feuding is democratically justifiable insofar as it roots out unreasonable actors and spurious democrats. But for Mr Chadchart's fandom to serve as democracy's constables? That is a far cry from democratic justice.

If chiliasm sounds too fantastical and fanatical, can Mr Chadchart's messianism be redeemed as heroism plain and simple? How healthy is heroism to begin with? The Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza professed that what every well-ordered society first and foremost needs is a "hero-founder". Before the rational powers of individuals can be fully awakened and society can become whole, a heroic leader must be tasked with overawing anyone who might behave uncivilly towards others.

Is Mr Chadchart then a hero of Thai politics? More importantly, should he become one?

Firstly, it is questionable whether Mr Chadchart has any intention of being awe-inspiring at all, even if this is what people anticipate from him.

Secondly, his fandom may inadvertently do more to hazard than augment his perceived heroism. And despite such heroism being long reinforced by lighthearted exaggerations of his untouchable superhuman strength -- culminating in the bestowed moniker "strongest in the land", the superhero persona did not make him untouchable from critics or voters outside his fandom.

Chances are Thais will need to balance both the demands of heroism, on one end, and public scrutiny, on the other. Even a champion of deliberative democracy like Jurgen Habermas struggled to deny that heroism is sometimes necessary. Quoting Bertolt Brecht, Dr Habermas confesses that "Unhappy is the country that needs heroes".

Indeed, this iteration of Brecht's proverb contains a double meaning. In one sense, heroes are needed precisely because a country can no longer press forward (onto democracy) without them. In the other, a country is (democratically) hopeless because it has heroes. The latter suggests that the line between chauvinism and chiliasm can indeed be very blurry. Just as Gen Prayut was once a nationalist hero to many, so Mr Chadchart became the hero-messiah democrats were chiliastic about.

Whatever the case, it could be said that heroism is the binding factor. Heroism contains a potential flaw that explains the excesses of both in a coherent fashion, with Mr Chadchart fever culminating in the excesses of democratic hope. This is why Thais must be especially careful when it comes to hoping in hard times. Hope is good, but a more nuanced picture also renders it a double-edged sword.

In sum, there is more to Mr Chadchart's impenetrable cult status than meets the eye. Democratic discussions are stifled at their very core, because the cult replaces reason with sheer hope. Yet, hopes and heroes are important to distraught and tumultuous societies. What Spinoza said about the hero-founder being an integral element of democracy-building still rings true today in Thai politics.

Therefore, if Thais wish to create a society of intersubjective dialogue and cross-ideological solidarity, perhaps the search for reason must also be supplemented with having heroes to be captivated by or look up to.

Dulyaphab Chaturongkul is a lecturer at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University, specialising in political theory.

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