“By three methods”, Confucius once observed, “we may learn wisdom. First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is bitterest”.
If Thailand has gained wisdom, it has indeed been through bitter experience. Repeated military interventions that disrupts democracy, a corrupt political culture and an economy that works for the few and not the many: the events of the past twenty years, and indeed the past eight decades since the transition to democracy, has shown that Thailand’s political problems are deep-rooted. To resolve these problems demand the election of those best suited to solve them.
Supporting Prayut or Thaksin would be to reject the lessons of that shared experience. Last week, I outlined the case against voting for pro-Prayut parties. In that post, I also briefly discussed my long-held stance against Pheu Thai and other incarnations of pro-Thaksin parties. Let us reflect, then, on the virtues of the remaining two significant parties: the Democrats and Future Forward.
The Democrats remain under the leadership of former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Campaigning on a raft of policies intended to address economic inequality and championing themselves as the protectors of liberal democracy, the Democrats have presented themselves as responsible stalwarts of a democratic order. In a bid to win over younger voters, they are also running a slate of new politicians including Abhisit’s own nephew, under the ‘New Dem’ banner.
Everyone in my family has voted Democrat in essentially every single election. It is almost a genetic instinct for me to vote Democrat. I thought long and hard about this. I came to the conclusion, however, that the Democrats have not staked out a clear enough position. Abhisit’s party remains divided by factions that are unhappy with his rejection of support for Prayut. They rhetorically support liberal democracy, but the scale of the policies the Democrats propose are disproportional to the problems which we face.
My support in this election therefore goes to Future Forward.
Future Forward is not perfect. Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit, a billionaire who presents himself as a liberal champion of the people (a label which sounds too similar to a certain former prime minister), is a new player with no previous experience in government. Future Forward’s policies are ambitious and uncompromising, almost guaranteeing tensions with many conservatives. Thanathorn was also formerly a red shirt protester, providing more ammunition for attack.
Therefore, this is not an endorsement that I make easily. I came to this decision due to three key reasons.
Firstly, Future Forward correctly diagnoses Thailand’s ills as structural in nature. A sustainable democracy is simply incompatible with a military that is overeager to intervene in politics. Thailand will fall into the same vicious cycle of military coups unless this is permanently changed.
To that end, Thanathorn has made absolutely clear that Future Forward will not support Prayut’s return to the premiership and pledges to amend the 2017 constitution, which guarantees a formal long-term political presence for the military. In particular, Thanathorn targets the appointed senate and the 20-year national strategy (the flaws of which I explained here). The constitution shackles Thailand to the state of a quasi-democracy; it must be amended.
Bringing the army out of politics and back to the barracks will be challenging and requires more than scrapping parts of the 2017 constitution. Future Forward pledges to reform nomination policies so that key military figures must be vetted and confirmed by parliament, ensuring supreme civilian control over the military. The defense minister, and thus ultimately the prime minister will be granted command of the army.
Future Forward also eyes major changes to the military that is aimed to turn it into a truly professional fighting force controlled by the civilian government, in line with other major democracies. These reforms include a major downsizing of the military, especially its general ranks, and elimination of conscription. Some remain in favor of conscription, but there is no reason for Thailand, a nation with few wars to fight, to have such a bloated army of unprofessional conscripts. Even Taiwan, under the permanent menace of China, has abolished conscription.
Beyond red and yellow
Thailand deserves a new alternative unlinked to the old dichotomy of red and yellow. It is an unfortunate fact that many red shirts remain bitter about Abhisit’s handling of the 2010 political crisis, while any pro-Thaksin nominee would be unacceptable to yellow shirts. The victory of either would perpetuate the political crisis yet again.
In addition, Thailand’s major political split is no longer that of red and yellow. Prayut’s entrance into the electoral arena has shaken the old divide. This change in political landscape was further exposed with Thai Raksa Chart’s nomination of Princess Ubolratana, when for a day conservative royalists and Thaksinite anti-aristocrats found themselves in a state of mutual confusion.
But if we do not want to continue with this cycle of red versus yellow, nor support a corrupt military government, perhaps a shade of orange can prove a palatable choice to all. If PDRC protesters truly believe in the rhetoric of national reform, then voting for Future Forward is in line with their values, as they are advocating for reform that will do much to better Thailand’s democracy. The old refrain of ‘reform before elections’ has clearly not happened under Prayut, and the line of thinking that a retired general can bring the change a 21st century nation must be abandoned now that this has become abundantly clear that he will not push through reforms in any meaningful way. If pro-Thaksin voters seek to end the cycle of military coups, Future Forward’s policies should also appeal to them.
Can Future Forward win? That sounds improbable. But it does not mean that voting for them is pointless.
Tactical voting aside, casting a ballot is also a statement of values. While Thai political parties defy easy categorization on a conventional political scale, it would not be inaccurate to describe Future Forward as unabashedly progressive in outlook. Therefore, a vote for Future Forward is a vote in support of progressive values that we need to push Thailand forward, an endorsement of new ideas and new thinking. Even if Future Forward does not win, it is important to show that forward-thinking can be a viable force in Thai politics. Reform of the military is an extremely high priority, and only one party that has put this issue front and centre; supporting that party is therefore the electorate’s only way of saying this matters.
Future Forward’s other proposed policies themselves are worth supporting. Their goal encapsulated in a slogan is ‘Thailand’s two equalities” (it sounds better in Thai – Thai song tao), which includes economic equality (Khon tao tiem gun) and reaching parity with other countries (Thai tao tun loke). Among the policies proposed are ending key monopolies, prioritizing public transport, corruption eradication, phasing out plastic use and education reform: all reforms that we badly need.
Thailand has had 12 successful military coups since 1932. The merits and demerits of the latest one in 2014 can be debated, but a more fundamental question is: how do we make it the last one?
Francis Fukuyama proposed in The Origins of Political Order that a modern political order requires three pillars: a strong state, rule of law and political accountability. A liberal democracy must have a balance between all three to sustain itself successfully. Thailand has developed a strong state, to be sure, but the degree to which we had the rule of law and political accountability has varied over time. Frequent military coups ensure that Thailand’s democratic development is continually disrupted. We can never develop rule of law if we tear up constitutions every couple of years, just as we cannot foster a culture of accountability if generals can act with impunity.
Enough is enough. It’s time to learn the bitter lessons of our past and move forward.
I repeat here, as I did in my article on Prayut, that we need to reject the strand of Thai exceptionalism which says Thailand can never be ready for democracy. Saying that does not mean, of course, that we must blindly worship democracy. Liberal democracy has its issues, and it is not “the end of history” as Fukuyama infamously predicted elsewhere. But Thailand should no longer live at the mercy of generals who intervene when they like. Democracy must be allowed to stand on its own two legs, to fail when it must and to be fixed by those where political power ultimately lies: the people.
A Thaksinocracy and a military regime are not the answers for how to end the vicious cycle of coups. They are insufficient as choices. We need new alternatives. We need to show that Thailand is no longer willing to accept the same tired options of the past. And we need to make it clear that after eighty-six years of trying, it’s time that to make liberal democracy work.
Onward, and towards the future.
Vote Future Forward on March 24th.