Dangerous nonsense about parliamentary dictatorship

Dangerous nonsense about parliamentary dictatorship

Whenever a Thai political party gains a dominant position in parliament, voices mutter about "parliamentary dictatorship".

Now that the Thaksinite party has won five elections in a row (including one invalidated), this muttering has become louder. Democracy is not good, some say, because it is a tyranny of the majority, and the minority has no say, no protection.

In most working democracies, when one party gains such a dominant position, its rivals will shift their stance towards that of the dominant party to win away over some of the "middle ground".

A classic example of that occurred in the UK. New Labour fought back against Thatcherism by adopting many key Thatcherite policies and finding in Tony Blair a leader, like Thatcher, well suited to the era of TV politics.

When Thaksin ran his first national election campaign in 2001, he brought two innovations. He offered a simple and appealing policy programme. He presented himself as a zappy businessman and labelled the Democrats as old-fashioned fuddy-duddy bureaucrats.

At the time, the Democrats disdained policy platforms as trickery. They campaigned by vaunting their ministerial team. Since then, the party has come a long way. At the 2011 polls, the party had a very elaborate platform. But party politics is not only about policies but also about image, affinity and appeal. When the Democrats presented their policy platform to the public, they dressed it up as a "gift" to the people, a bit like an act of charity from the rich to the poor. On his main election poster, Abhisit Vejjajiva appeared in a blue, crested blazer, the uniform of the bureaucrat.

The Democrats have moved some way in the last decade, but not as much as the mass of the people have moved as a result of the big social changes of the past generation. People no longer perceive bureaucrats as minor deities as in the past. The party represents values that are simply not appealing to enough people. The Democrats have positioned themselves as suspicious of electoral democracy at exactly the time when the mass of the people have discovered that electoral democracy is important.

The Democrats have got into this hole because of a problem affecting all Thai political parties: they are not democratic. They have no mass membership. They are not open to public opinion. Their policies and electoral candidates are chosen by a handful of leaders.

In this respect, the Democrats are in fact more advanced than most parties. They have an organisational structure and regular meetings. Other parties are more or less the property of their leading investors. In the early 2000s, the Thai Rak Thai Party recruited a mass base but never gave this base any role in the working of the party. In 2005, the party mulled the idea of giving local party units more say in the choice of election candidates, but then the idea was lost in the chaos.

At a time when Thai society has become highly politicised, the parties do not act as a channel for political expression. It's not very surprising that people pour on to the street.

In any upcoming political reform, tinkering with the election system and the checks-and-balance mechanisms will only go so far. Parties must be induced to become a more useful part of the political system by acting so that public opinion finds expression. The Democrats might reinvent themselves by reforming the party along these lines without being pushed. But significantly at the moment the leadership is resisting such a proposal from some of its members.

Pasuk Phongpaichit is emeritus professor at the Faculty of Economics, Chulalongkorn University. Chris Baker is a historian and Bangkok-based scholar who co-writes many books on Thai politics and economy with Prof Pasuk.

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