Late last year, rumours began bubbling in the Thai media that the two biggest political parties, the Pheu Thai party and the Democratic party, were weighing an alliance in the next election. Chaturon Chaisaeng, a former minister under Yingluck Shinawatra, said, “If the two parties can’t join hands, it cannot form a government”.
This idea would once have been unthinkable. Only a few years ago, proxies for these two parties were fighting on the streets, locked in a decade-long death struggle. It would be as if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton suddenly deciding that they were best friends and would govern together in the White House.
But given Thailand’s recent political conditions, it isn’t difficult to see why an alliance has suddenly become appealing to members of the two parties. In recent weeks, it has become clearer and clearer that Prayut is seeking to continue his premiership even after the return to democracy. As I outlined in this post from September, this is a very possible outcome: the new constitution permits parliament to choose an ‘outsider’ prime minister who is not an elected MP; with a Senate handpicked by the NCPO, it would require a landslide by the Pheu Thai or the Democrats to prevent Prayut’s return. Thus, a Pheu Thai/Democrat coalition would increase the chances of the elected politicians regaining power.
So far, leaders in the two parties have shot down talk of the idea, saying that it is far too early to discuss such plans. But let’s say the date for a general election has been set, and it’s time to seriously weigh this thought. Could an alliance between the Pheu Thai and the Democrats actually happen?
My short answer is no – an alliance would be politically completely unviable and would lead to a rapid disintegration of our first elected government in four years.
The main reason for this is the Prayut government’s arguably greatest failure: that of failing to truly move towards national reconciliation. The last time I wrote about reconciliation was in January 2016, when some organs of the government were still considering using legal mechanisms to create reconciliation (a strange idea indeed). The government’s attempts have become much sillier since, with the launch of ‘Nong Kiew Koy’ (Pinky Promise Sister) as a mascot to symbolise reconciliation. “Nong Kiaw Koy’s face looks kind of dark to show the determination and hard work needed to make reconciliation happen”, explained the Ministry of Defence. Most critics agree that she simply looks creepy. Needless to say, a mascot will not bring reconcile Thailand any better than using legal committees to force a sense of love.
As such, two years on, Thailand remains just as divided between reds and yellows as before. Perhaps the royal funeral and cremation of King Bhumibol Adulyadej provided a brief moment of national unity, but this sense is fading fast as eyes turn to the end of the NCPO era. And indeed, upon two more years of reflection, perhaps this divide is unbridgeable. I wrote that the government would do well to try to address the fundamental causes of Thailand’s conflict by addressing political and economic inequality and to fight corruption. The first goal Prayut has pledged to do, but it is impossible to eradicate poverty in a single year; the latter has proved a complete farce with the long-running saga over Prawit Wongsuwan’s watches. But even if these goals were to be realised, it is likely that there will still be a deep sense of distrust between the two sides. One side believes Thaksin wants to destroy Thailand to enrich himself; the other sees the Democrats as an elitist party trying to rob the country of true democracy. Where is the middle ground?
Some would say there is now an area with middle ground: the Democrats and the Pheu Thai have overlapping interests to stop a military-backed party. Yet this is simply the interests of the party leaders, not the rank-and-file members nor the voters. The people have not yet been reconciled to the point where they would be willing to imagine voting for a party they once hated. Is it truly imaginable that large swathes of people who protested with the PDRC would vote for a Pheu Thai-aligned Democrat, whom they see as dangerous populists unable to govern well? Or any red shirts who would vote for a party aligned with Abhisit, whom they view as a murderer?
And upon further reflection, I’ve come to question the degree to which reconciliation actually needs to happen. It is not healthy for a country to be so polarised, but neither is it necessary for there to be true unity (the sort of which would allow a Democratic/Pheu Thai coalition to emerge). A vibrant parliamentary democracy requires a government and an opposition, and passions will run high regardless of how much ‘reconciliation’ happens. Instead of focusing on feel-good approaches to reconciliation, it is necessary to develop a better understanding of democracy and constitutional mechanisms to make your views heard. Thailand cannot continue to have each side take turns to shutdown Ratchaprasong. Pheu Thai must not rule through a tyranny of the majority, while the Democrats need to learn how to win elections.
Regardless, reconciliation has not been achieved, and is unlikely to truly be achieved. What the Prayut government should focus on in its last year in office is to at least lessen the levels of division and distrust and to promote an understanding of democracy among Thai citizens. The Pheu Thai and Democrats will also have to realise, before it is too late, that any political alliance between the two parties will not be accepted by the Thai public.