Tony Benn, the great British parliamentarian, said that there were five powerful questions that must be asked of a government. “What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And finally, how can we get rid of you?” The last question was supremely important, Benn said, for “if you can’t get rid of the people who govern you, you don’t live in a democratic system”.
How to get rid of a government: this is a question that millions in Thailand have spent the past week asking. We saw two efforts happening in concert, inside and outside parliament, to hasten the end of the Prayut administration. One was the motion of no-confidence, put forward by the opposition parties, and the other was the outburst of student protests nationwide in reaction to the dissolution of the Future Forward party.
The censure debate never had any real chance of unseating any of the ministers in which it targeted, and indeed the spectacular collapse of the opposition bloc’s unity ensured that they did not come remotely close. But the debate still succeeded in important respects. From examining policies that have exacerbated economic inequality, to the grilling of Thammanat Promphao on his unsavory past, to Wiroj Lakkhanaadisorn exposing the government’s intensive information operations aimed at sowing fake news on social media, the opposition did much to answer several of the questions that Tony Benn posed.
There was only one conclusion one could make: much power the government does indeed possess, wielded in the interests of the few not the many, in a manner certainly not accountable to the people.
The censure debate also answered Benn’s fifth question: it was impossible to get rid of the government. Future Forward lost a number of MPs after its dissolution, and suffered yet more defections to the government. Pheu Thai, tarnished by accusations of attempting to protect Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, ended up walking out of the censure debate. Against a disunited opposition in disarray, the government’s position in the lower house has never been stronger.
But this was the result not of democratic electioneering but of constitutional machinations. Indeed, the censure debate’s very lack of tangible success may indeed be the most important result. But even as we all knew that under the 2017 constitution parliament could not truly be democratic, the return of an elected parliament had felt novel after five apathetic years of rubber stamp legislatures. The censure debate showed, once and for all, that parliamentary opposition was effectively dead. If there was ever any hope that parliament could prove to be a check on the government, that light has been extinguished.
The student movement, instead, points to the road forward in Thai politics. Extraparliamentary movement was always something that Future Forward wanted to avoid. But for many there is no longer a choice. A flawed constitution means that a government cannot be removed from power either by an election or through parliament: that much has been clear since last March. But Future Forward’s dissolution provided the necessary catalyst that brought people out on the streets. Protests simultaneously sprung up in universities nationwide.
What this movement does have in its favor is abundant youthful energy. There is no sign yet that it will run out of steam; the new website MobGunMai.com show that demonstrations continue to be scheduled. The movement is also spreading beyond just students, as the Thai Enquirer reported.
The question now becomes how a movement outside of parliament could actually accomplish any of its goals. The only way to break the government’s monopoly on power would be through constitutional reform. Yet there is no incentive for the government to; in fact, it is more likely to believe that it can ride out the storm. These flash mobs signal popular dissatisfaction, but how can they lead to change? Precedent in Thai history does not yield much optimism for a successful movement that can accomplish its goals without any bloodshed.
To predict the future would be a task of folly and one I shall not attempt. But we can wager that Thai politics will be entering a new, potentially more dangerous phase. The tragedy, of course, is that everyone saw this coming; such an uneven political playing field would eventually have resulted in mass demonstrations and a return to the vicious cycle of street protests. A government that provides its citizens with no means of democratic removal will now have to suffer the consequences of its own myopia.