In this webinar, The Honorable Abhisit Vejjajiva, former Prime Minister of Thailand, shared his thoughts on the role and importance of political parties in his country’s democracy.
THAILAND STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Monday, 2 August 2021 – Setting his remarks in the context of 90 years of political instability since the introduction of constitutional government to Thailand in 1932, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva drew on his direct experience to discuss the roles and status of political parties in the country.
The former prime minister turned first to parties’ roles. Under repeated spells of military rule, Thai coup leaders’ created parties to give their regimes a veneer of legitimacy. The Democrat Party, Thailand’s oldest, served in the meantime as the political opposition to those military parties. The three years starting in 1973 brought a brief departure from this pattern, a time in which a broad range of political parties competed openly. The 1980s saw an era of compromise. While unelected Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda led multi-party coalitions, political parties did not take leading roles in government. Rather, General Prem relied on technocrats. The example of this era continues to inform the thinking of the military men who govern Thailand today. Later, between 1992 and 2006, electoral democracy put down deeper roots, before the polarization that continues today overtook the country’s politics. Over the course of this challenging history, political parties did while in power make a number of significant and lasting policy contributions. These contributions included access to affordable health care, free education, and steps toward administrative decentralization — all measures whose adoption would have been unlikely under military or technocratic governments. Even today, political parties remain important agents of change in Thailand.
Prime Minister Abhisit next turned to Thai political parties’ lack of success in functioning in ways expected in liberal democracies: representing voters, subscribing to clear ideologies, and offering real choices at the ballot box. A lack of continuity in the operation of parties and their inability to form around coherent ideologies have meant that they have been centred on personalities, whether military or civilian. They have flourished and declined with the personalities that dominated them, and the polarization of recent times has only exacerbated this problem. Recent Thai politics has been very much a clash of personalities offering contrasting choices to voters. In the meantime, laws and constitutions have sought to shape the party system, sometimes with the goal of promoting large, strong parties and sometimes with the goal of fragmenting the system into small, weak parties. All along, political instability has contributed to parties’ weakness, even as the politicians that lead them have themselves contributed to that instability. In short, Thai parties have a long way to go before they can operate according to the expectations of a liberal-democratic system. Steps on this path need to include rewriting the 2017 Constitution, as well as parties’ forming around core ideas, offering choices to voters and focusing less on dominant personalities. Failure in some or all of these last three areas characterizes Thailand’s leading political parties today.
Prime Minister Abhisit concluded his remarks by noting that many of the problems that he had cited were no longer unique to Thailand. The rise of parties centred on populist, nationalist and authoritarian personalities was correlated with a worldwide decline in liberal democracy.
In her comments on Prime Minister Abhisit’s remarks, Professor Punchada Sirivunnabood concurred with his view that Thai political parties were weak. She noted that the role of privileged elites in founding parties and the strength of party factions at the expense of parties themselves contributed to that weakness. Top-down party-building made the institutionalization of parties difficult. Professor Punchada also called attention to small parties’ record of abusing government subsidies intended to promote party-building.
Questions for Prime Minister Abhisit concerned the democratic aspirations of youthful protestors in Thailand and the state of democratic education in the country, the value of building networks of party branches in the age of social media, the future of the Democrat Party, and the impact on governance of parties’ claiming cabinet portfolios according to a spoils system. Participants also asked about the struggle of the Prayut Chan-ocha government with COVID-19 and its impact on the ruling coalition, that government’s prospects for survival, means to bring Thailand’s current polarization to an end, the likely outcome of the protest movement of the last two years, the relationship between calls for the reform of the Thai monarchy and democratization, and Prime Minister Abhisit’s own political future.