Many commentators have suggested that the Samak government’s proposal for a referendum to resolve the current political crisis is a stunt.
Of course it is.
What comes of the stunt remains to be seen. The referendum questions need to be clarified. The constitutional implications need to be explored. A legal framework needs to be developed. And a general willingness to participate in the conduct of the referendum needs to be cultivated. Samak may find that some of these barriers are insurmountable.
But to dismiss the proposed referendum because it is a political stunt would be to miss the point. This is the season for stunts in Thai politics. The PAD are stunt masters. Samak is playing along.
The beauty of Samak’s stunt is that it speaks to the core truth that lies at the heart of the current political crisis: the PAD’s low level of popular support. Samak’s referendum proposal highlights the very limited popular foundations on which the PAD campaign is built.
Whatever happens with the referendum – or even with Samak himself – this core truth means that the PAD cannot succeed in their current attempt to reshape Thai politics. Despite the many political difficulties it has experienced, Thailand has moved too far along the democratic path to revert to a system where governments are appointed rather than elected. The PAD’s “new” politics was still-born.
So can the PAD, in any form, play a part in Thailand’s political future?
Of course it can.
But it will need to move out of the euphoric bubble of protest and engage in a longer term campaign of cultivating electoral support. PAD boasts about its NGO, union and academic networks. These could provide a starting point for a campaign of recruitment, political persuasion and broad-based mobilisation. Genuine alliances need to be built with existing political parties. Perhaps even a new political party could be formed. Policies need to be proposed. Political slogans need to be fine-tuned. The anti-corruption message needs to be forged into a coherent platform.
In order to achieve any success in this longer term campaign, the PAD needs to abandon one of its defining characteristics: its contempt for the electorate and its rejection of electoral judgement. Insisting that the electorate is incapable of making informed political decisions may win the PAD some short term tactical victories. Making exaggerated claims about rampant vote buying may help to tarnish some of Samak’s electoral legitimacy. Alleging that rural voters are easily swayed to do the government’s bidding may, in some quarters, help to discredit Samak’s proposal for a referendum. But if the People’s Alliance for Democracy wants to develop into a credible political force, sooner or later it will have to engage with the people and their genuine electoral aspirations.
It remains to be seen if it can do so.