Watchers of American politics will be familiar with Texas senator Ted Cruz’s statement that he is a Christian first, an American second, a conservative third and a Republican fourth, which led to much derision about whether that order actually holds true. The question of whether one holds party over country is one that continues to be asked in many opinion columns as the Trump era continues.
In the Thailand, as the aftermath of the March election drags on seemingly never to end, we have been treated to another prime display of the discord between party interest and the national interest.
The Bhumjaithai and the Democrat parties remain undecided about their political stance. Bhumjaithai leader Anutin Charnvirakul pledged to make his party’s stance clear by May 20th after a meeting of their parliamentary members, but nothing of substance emerged from that meeting. The Democrats, on the other hand, recently elected longtime MP Jurin Laksanawisit as their new leader. He has pledged to follow whatever decision the party’s executive committee decides, which have yet to meet.
On one hand, the delay in reaching coalitional clarity is understandable. Politics was mostly suspended in much of May due to the royal coronation. And both parties have much to bargain for: play their cards right, and one of their own party leaders might win the premiership itself. The kingmaker role is lucrative.
But the extended delay also begs the question of whether it is time both parties put the national interest above the party interest.
That the Bhumjaithai party has no real ideology or principle is well known. The party has historically held no true allegiance to either side of the political spectrum. But the amount of time Anutin has taken to play coy has annoyed practically every observer of Thai politics. He has attempted to make recreational marijuana legalization, the party’s flagship policy proposal, the sticking point. But it is a strange hill to choose to die on when so much more is at sake. Whether Thailand will continue its path towards a lasting semi-democracy, or throw out the NCPO’s legacy, should not rest upon the fact that some people really like pot.
Indeed, we know that ultimatum is a farce; any coalition would legalize marijuana if that will guarantee Bhumjaithai’s support. Anutin is bargaining to see if he can be offered the most lucrative ministries, and perhaps even win the post of prime minister for himself. The country can be damned; all Bhumjaithai really wants is the ministry of transport.
The Democrats, on the other hand, has taken their time due to their leadership election. They are also concerned about how to restore their party’s elections prospects after its bruising in March. But the choice that the new party leadership faces should not be a difficult one, if it holds on to any true principle. The Democrats opposed ‘parliamentary dictatorship’ — the PPRP will have to rely on a true unelected senate to win power. The Democrats claim to dislike populism — Prayut has spent a vast amount of taxpayer money on his own populist schemes. The Democrats had beef with some pro-Thaksin politicians — now those same politicians are working for the PPRP. The Democrats claim they are opposed to corruption — Prayut’s regime represents corruption without accountability.
There are some positive signs. Its new leader, Jurin Laksanawisit, is known to have been supported by former prime ministers Chuan Leekpai and Abhisit Vejjajiva, both of whom are opposed to the Democrats signing up with a PPRP coalition. But rumors remain of continued ministry bargaining and of a decision to join forces with Bhumjaithai to maximize leverage in talks with the PPRP.
The two parties claim that they are taking their time to listen to the “voice of the people”. For the Democrat Party, this should be clear; the 3.9 million people who voted for them did so with the understanding that Abhisit had pledged not to support Prayut’s return to the premiership. But for the Bhumjaithai party, the voice of the people should not be difficult to discern, with the anti-junta coalition receiving far more votes than Palang Pracharath and the myriad of small parties it has assembled in support. But for the Bhumjaithai party, the voice of the people should not be difficult to discern, with the anti-junta coalition receiving far more votes than Palang Pracharath and the myriad of small parties it has assembled in support.
Will the two parties find some backbone? Perhaps not. But if they do, their leaders will go down in history as men who, at a critical juncture, chose principle over pure party interest.