Former Finance Minister Korn Chatikavanij recently set up a new political party, after leaving the Democrats. “Kla“, Korn had christened the new party: translated to English, it means something like ‘the party of courage’ — to dare. It was time, he declared, for a new political party that dares to do the work, and to create change.
But amid the great fanfare and slick branding with which the party was announced, Korn has not addressed a number of important questions. Here are two which I would like to raise.
1. What, exactly, is the party’s ideology?
Political parties in Thailand are not known to be very ideological, but many do at least seem to stand for something. Future Forward is clearly progressive, the Democrats are more conservative, and so on and so forth. So where on the ideological scale will Korn’s party land?
The answer that he has given is that the party will uphold the principle of pattibatniyom — a term that would best translate to pragmatism. Kla’s co-founder, former Democrat MP Attavit Suwannapakdee, outdid even Andrew Yang when he said that the party would be neither left, nor right, nor center.
But what does that mean? Pragmatism is a strategy, not an ideology in itself. It informs methods, but what are the party’s goals? What does it hope to achieve? We should not give Korn a free pass to simply say it will be pragmatic to achieve economic development. What are the values that it will choose to decide which goals it chooses to pursue? Will it prioritize, for example, free market principles and equality of opportunity? Or will it seek to enlarge the welfare state and protect the most vulnerable in society?
The first thing that the party should have the courage to do is to clearly outline its goals. Korn’s former party, the Democrats, has a manifesto. Of late they have tended not to adhered to its values, but at least they are clearly stated. They refuse to accept dictatorship in any of its forms. It will seek to decentralize and devolve power wherever possible. It believes that state intervention in markets is necessary and acceptable.
It would do Korn’s new party well to take a leaf out of his old party’s website. Merely being “pragmatic” is insufficient — because at what point does pragmatism simply become opportunism?
2. Will the party have the courage to tackle structural issues?
Speak of political courage, and the party that most in Thailand will think of first will be the Future Forward party. Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the party’s goals, all can see that the party has been extremely clear in what it stands for: progressive reform. Its proposals are bold, innovative, and in my opinion, needed. The party has correctly diagnosed that Thailand’s problems cannot be solved with mere policy tinkering; instead, structural reform is needed: demilitarization, democratization and decentralization.
There is more than a hint of Future Forward in Kla — its self-confessed desire to embrace the younger generation, for instance, and a focus on innovative ideas. But Korn is not Thanathorn, and Kla is not Future Forward. Korn is most well known for his technocratic approach to government; he did well as finance minister in managing Thailand’s response to the Great Recession. Yet technocratic economic policy alone is not enough to drive Thailand forward at this time. Without a willingness to tackle structural issues, his party will merely be sticking a band aid on a deeper wound.
Take, for example, the five areas that Korn has said his party should focus on: PEACE (poverty, education, artificial intelligence, corruption and the environment). He has said, vaguely, that technology can be used to help eradicate these issues. There are policies that the current government can pursue right now to fix the issues we have in these areas. And yes, technology is important; anything that is done to push forward Thailand’s government machinery, which seems last fit for purpose around roughly the Triassic era, to the modern age would be helpful. But Korn cannot ignore the structural issues that underpin these problems. To eradicate corruption, for example, is not just about supervising government employees with greater technology; it also means making the army more accountable. Will Korn have the courage to raise these difficult conversations?
I believe that the Kla party can be a useful addition to Thailand’s ecosystem of political parties. Korn, unlike Thanathorn, is not politically radioactive to conservatives, and he can help facilitate more forward thinking where other conservative parties have become intellectually bankrupt.
The point still stands, however, that the party will need to be brave enough to propose innovative solutions that solve problems at their root. And it will need to be brave enough to reject supporting those who have no interest in solving the structural issues behind Thailand’s woes — the current government, for instance. Otherwise, it will merely become a less daring shadow of the Future Forward party. For a party that has self-declared its own bravery, to lack political courage would be a shame indeed.