Re-Engineering the doddering Democrats
The Thaksin Shinawatra political machine is winning big; the Democrat Party is losing large. For the sake of good governance and Thailand's future, the Democrats need to shape up.
The Peace Forum last Monday was mere window-dressing. But with the presence of the three foreign dignitaries, the Thaksin political machine scored another public relations victory in painting the image for the world that the Pheu Thai government is legitimate, reconciliatory and forward thinking.
Meanwhile, the Democrats appeared combative and unconstructive in choosing parliament scuffles, street protests and boycotts instead of joining hands _ even if just to fake it.
A New York Times opinion article, "Can Egypt Learn from Thailand?", painting Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra as the saviour of the nation is a fine example. People may debate over the accuracy of the content, but it was another PR victory.
On his hiring by the Pheu Thai government last year, PR guru Tyler Brule of Winkreative said one of his strategies is to use his international media connections to place such stories. Do the Democrats have a PR guru?
The art of storytelling is an important political communication tool. Image may not be reality, but it is democratically useful, and Pheu Thai is projecting a positive image. A political campaign is a matter of who can "fake it" the best. In turn, the projected image reinforces the beliefs and loyalties of Thaksin's supporters in Thailand.
One side manages global perceptions, the other plays street tag.
The Democrats suffer the image of a conservative, pro-establishment party with a too-comfortable alliance with the military. This simply does not speak well to the international community that promotes democracy. As well, the international community has only a superficial understanding of Thailand. This is simply because we don't matter that much in the global scheme, so savvy PR gurus win the day.
Other than image, there are also practical considerations. Thaksin has employed top international and local consultant groups to manage his campaigns since the early days of the Thai Rak Thai party. His strategy has always been methodical and scientific, even if he himself also consults fortune tellers. He puts the right people in the right job with the only objective that matters _ getting things done.
At the end of the day, what matters most to the private sector, foreign investors and foreign governments, is the ability to get things done. Everyone has a bottom line to answer to. Everyone prefers to deal with professionals, rather than amateurs.
No matter the coup, the courts or the crackdown _ no matter how the political machine itself has mucked things up magnificently over the years _ it still bounces back time and time again from the brink of defeat. This is because at the end of the day it has three important fundamentals: Organisation (fast and flexible), strategy (from the top minds money can buy) and execution (efficient and resolute).
Opponents of the political machine may like to paint them as corrupt, incompetent buffoons. But even if this were true, the supposed buffoons have won and they are in charge, so what does that make the opponents of those buffoons?
The Thai democracy doesn't have to be a state-of-the-art machine, although that is what we should strive for. But definitely it has to be more than the run-down, rusty wagon that it is now. Hence, Democrats need to shape up and become a progressive and constructive opposition that can check and balance _ in other words prevent _ the oncoming democratic dictatorship of Thaksin. They need to be a viable alternative that may even one day win a general election.
Balance of power is a key element to shape a healthy democracy. The healthier the democracy the less the likelihood of a military intervention or any possibility of a civil war. We go back to the three fundamentals.
The Democrats can boast fine talent and excellent education among its ranks. They do have capable people. But what does that matter if the organisational structure and culture is dinosaur-esque, burying the talent, education and capabilities under the huge pile of bureaucratic baggage that is common in any big Thai organisation, whether in the government or private sector.
In terms of strategy, the Democrats only speak to the faithful who really, really hate Thaksin. That's not much of a strategy. The methods of street politics, hateful rhetoric and mud-slinging _ which the Democrats condemned when they were in government _ may strengthen the resolve of their support base, but this does little to expand the base.
Those in the middle who only want to see Thailand progress are rather disappointed and exasperated. Those who support Thaksin _ who far outnumber supporters of the Democrats _ only grow stronger in their hatred for the Democrats.
The question over whether the Democrats can change Thailand for the better is irrelevant so long as the opposition party fails to re-engineer itself.
If Democrat Party members can accept criticism and recognise the need to re-engineer, then the party has hope for the future. If not, surely the democratic dictatorship of Thaksin will prevail.
Waiting around for Pheu Thai to muck up the economy to the point it would lead to a (legal) regime change is hardly a strategy either, and Thailand as a whole would be the casualty. Besides which, while many speculate that the government is going broke due to the 2.2-trillion-baht infrastructure bill, it may well be the lifeline to turn things around for the country in the near future.
For the Democrats, the platform of being pro-establishment isn't enough. In a democracy, the people want their representatives to be pro-people. They need to see and hear more of this stance. Fighting corruption isn't enough, especially since the Democrats have also been plagued with corruption allegations when in government. Fear and hatred of Thaksin isn't enough, since the majority of the voters, as often proven, don't fear or hate Thaksin.
In order to change with the times, the Democrats need to re-engineer their organisation and come up with a credible and viable platform that appeals to the country as a whole. The platform doesn't have to abandon the past, meaning the establishment, but it should look forward into the future. The strategy has to be based on hope, not hate; inspiration, not fear.
It's worth noting that while this column has credited the Thaksin political machine in the political power game, this is only relative to the other political parties in Thailand. In fact it is also ridden with flaws and holes that are vulnerable to be exposed and exploited.
But these vulnerabilities can never be taken advantage of effectively if the Democrats remain stubborn and obstinate. One party is playing a game of thrones; the other can't seem to stop playing a game of street tag.
Another important question is, who can be the Democrats' brand ambassador? Who can they sell to the voters? Bear in mind, in the Thai social climate, the hatred for Thaksin (and to a much lesser extent, Ms Yingluck) can only be rivalled by the hatred for Abhisit Vejjajiva. At the end of the day, the siblings will get the majority of votes. They sit pretty (well, one of them anyway). It's the Democrats that have to make a move in this regard. You can't win a general election if you can't swing upcountry votes.
Change is no easy thing. People love to talk about it, but very few actually want to do it, and far fewer are actually doing it. It first requires self-awareness, and people in general refuse to see the stark horror of their own shortcomings. This is especially true in a face-value culture such as Thailand.
Thailand needs a healthy, functioning democracy with a strong mechanism for checks and balances. It also needs a credible and viable opposition _ an opposition that can pose a legitimate threat to unseat the government, democratically.
The Democrats can take the torch and march forward _ or continue to thumb their noses at legitimate criticisms. The ball is in their court, and the future of Thailand is at stake.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at email@example.com.
Bangkok Post columnist
Voranai Vanijaka is a columnist, Bangkok Post.