Since the time the People’s Alliance for Democracy started pushing its idea of “new politics,” the practical political question has been how to realize it. At the beginning, they had their protests at and around Government House and could thus impose the issue on the public agenda. However, the topic had already disappeared some weeks before the protests ended. The PAD’s success in expelling the “Thaksin regime” from government did not rely on its own resources. Moreover, the basic structures of the political system had remained completely unaffected. The political personnel merely reorganized and otherwise largely kept going as usual. As a result, the PAD had turned into a movement with a wider purpose without having an application for it, nor any positive prospects. Thus, the key question had become whether it could achieve its supposedly all-important political goals by remaining on the political-institutional sidelines. If the PAD really wanted to insist on fundamentally restructuring Thailand’s political system in a sustainable way, without having to be on constant alert to stage new protests, then its leaders and members had to think about ways of getting “new politics” back on the agenda. More importantly, the question arose what the PAD could do to force, or at least to meaningfully propose, its implementation.
On February 9, 2009, ASTV Phuchatkan printed a column by “Sirianya” headlined, “Three years of PAD… Our task has not yet ended.” He identified two important tasks. The first was to make the people loyal to “Nation, Religion, and Monarchy” so that they would be “guarantors of the everlasting stability” of this trinity. Second, the PAD should establish a “political combat force of the people in the parliamentary system. That is, there must be a political party of those people who are awakened so that it can act as their representative, as their voice, and fight for acquiring state power by passing the parliamentary process.” In case that this option was not chosen, “Sirianya” saw no opportunity for “new politics” to materialize. Rather, the PAD might well have to move to Government House and throw out a government again.
“Sirianya’s” column reflected the fact that soon after the Democrats had started to lead the government disappointment had set in. According to Suriyasai Katasila, the PAD’s analysis of the political situation had shown that the Democrats, “were in a difficult position, because the government has less bargaining power than expected” (ASTV Phuchatkan, March 7-8, 2009). From this angle, the talk about establishing a PAD party was meant as a signal to the Democrats, “to say that if they still did not do anything [to eliminate the remnants of the ‘Thaksin regime’], then a new party would come up.” The Democrat party was asked to improve its work and lead the people [supposedly in the direction of “new politics”]. Even the Bangkok Post (March 9, 2009), in welcoming the PAD’s party idea, complained, “one searches in vain for a Democrat platform, a Democrat vision or a strong Democrat grassroots movement.”
Sondhi Limthongkul, in announcing the PAD’s party plans on Koh Samui, took on the Democrats frontally (adapted from a report in ASTV Phuchatkan, March 6, 2009; its headline read, “Core leaders muster support for the establishment of a PAD party: Ready to clash with the Democrat party if it does not wipe out the Thaksin regime”):
If I spoke without pity, I would say that the southerners have elected the Democrats for the past 20 years, without anything having improved. Thus, for once, give the PAD an opportunity to get rid of the Thaksin regime. If we cannot manage this, do not elect us again. I know the feelings of the southerners. When they love somebody, then they really love that person. They still love the Democrats, even to the extent that they grind their teeth and are patient after they have been betrayed with the establishment of this government. However, if this betrayal continues without end, there will be a young handsome person waiting for them. His name is PAD. The southerners are ready to say that the time has come that somebody new must be tried.
More important than the Democrats’ perceived “betrayal” might have been the assessment of the general political situation. Suriyasai stated in ASTV Phuchatkan (March 7-8, 2009):
We do not at all believe that Newin Chidchob is ready to confront Thaksin. Rather, we believe that they have reached a secret deal at some level. Moreover, it is important to note that Newin is ready to change his mind all the time. If the Phuea Thai party convincingly wins the [next] election, the Democrat party will immediately be in the opposition. This is what we are afraid of in the present situation.
What the PAD leaders and probably many of their followers saw on the horizon after the next election was that the Democrat party would again be in the opposition facing just the same government coalition parties and politicians who had dominated the TRT and PPP – the PAD’s main enemies under the label of “Thaksin regime.” Despite all the turmoil and effort since September 2005, in political-structural and party-system terms, nothing significant would have changed,. The political system and its main protagonists would be just the same as before. The PAD’s despised bogeyman “old politics” would make a dreaded comeback.
Any significant role of the PAD party, however, will depend on its success in elections. Chamlong Srimuang set the goal high: “It is important that the new party lead the coalition in the next government, otherwise it will be no different to all the ‘old politics,’ with its vote-buying, mud-slinging and money politics” (The Nation, April 27, 2009). Suriyasai was less ambitious saying that if the PAD wanted to be effective, it had to think about accessing state power. Otherwise, it could not work for the benefit of the majority. This meant that the new party had to join the government. If that was impossible, then they would provide a quality opposition in parliament thereby setting a new standard in Thai politics (Post Today, May 23, 2009). Chai-anan Samudavanija, a PAD intellectual, cautioned that the movement might encounter problems at the beginning. Within five years, however, it should be able to grow into a mid-sized party of 30 to 50 quality MPs (ASTV Phuchatkan, May 25, 2009).
It was unthinkable that the “First Assembly of the People’s Alliance of Democracy” on May 24-25, 2009, would not overwhelmingly approve the establishment of a PAD political party. The congress document (ekasan prakop kanprachum 2009, p. 28) put it this way:
If our goal is to create “new politics,” it looks as if the PAD does not have many choices, other than entering the field of struggle within the parliamentary system… However, many people still wonder in how far a “political party” that is based on the PAD movement is appropriate and possible, and whether it will be able to change “old politics” into “new politics.”
After the first day of the PAD assembly in a meeting hall of Rangsit University, ASTV Phuchatkan (May 25, 2009) carried the front-page headline, “The PAD assembly resolves to establish a political party.” One day later, the background color of ASTV Phuchatkan‘s front page was all yellow, and the jubilant headline spread over the entire width of the page was, “Overwhelming decision to establish a party!” Below a huge picture showing how PAD enthusiasts in the sports stadium of Thammasat University’s Rangsit campus braved the rain, we read, “The PAD raises the curtain of new politics.” To the left, the headline of another article said, “25-5-52 a historic day – remembering the anniversary of a year of struggle” (the PAD had resumed its anti-government protests on May 25, 2008).
On June 4, 2009, the “New Politics Party” (phak kanmueang mai), led by interim chairperson Somsak Kosaisuk and interim secretary general Suriyasai Katasila, registered with the Election Commission. It is now in the process of fulfilling the legal requirements, such as recruiting at least 5,000 members in all regions, and establishing one branch in every region within one year (article 26 of the political party act). After the fulfillment of these requirements, the new party must hold its inaugural convention within 60 days (article 27 of the Political Party Act). According to Suriyasai, they expect to fulfill the conditions by the end of August, 2009, at the latest (ASTV Phuchatkan, July 2, 2009).
It is still too early to know how the PAD party will deal with issues such as financing, the recruitment of members and election candidates, its internal structure, leadership, and policy development. Crucially, the PAD party will have to try to build voter support in the country’s 400 constituencies. This appears to be an uphill task given that those areas have long been dominated by informal local political groups, and partly by Democrat party networks, especially in the south. The PAD party’s best chance for success seems to be the 80 proportional MPs, elected from eight regional lists. Here, the voters can easily transform their national political preferences into aggregated and thus effective votes, even if no strong New Politics Party candidate runs in their constituency. Yet, this will put the PAD party on a collision course with the Democrats, assuming that many PAD supporters voted for the Democrats in the 2007 election (conversely, many followers of the Democrats might have supported the PAD’s actions). Thus, the New Politics Party and the Democrats might largely rely on the same voter pool, rather than the New Politics Party being able to take votes away from the other political parties, or tap into new target groups, which would increase the overall voter share of the “yellow” camp. Anyway, merely relying on a share of the proportional MPs does not hold the prospect of a significant representation in the House.
Another important issue concerns ASTV. The PAD leaders have all along seen this vigorously partisan satellite TV channel as a vital tool for the sustenance of their movement, and the development of their political party. Yet, the constitution does not permit any political office holders to have shares in mass media companies. More importantly, the PAD party will be the only political party with its very own TV station, thereby enabling it to propagate its own views uncontested 24 hours a day. This will make a mockery of the elections laws’ intention to create a level playing field in the competition among political parties with respect to their access to the electronic mass media, especially during election time.
All those who might have hoped that the establishment of a PAD party will automatically spell the end of this movement’s potential for unruly public mass protests will be disappointed. The discussion about creating a PAD party had proceeded under the premise that the “people’s sector” form will remain intact. The party thus has been seen as merely another tool of the PAD movement to be used in different political circumstances. Columnist Surawit Wirawan put it this way, “Some people have suggested that if there is a PAD party, then there will be no protests by the PAD any longer. These people do not understand that street protests are a method of democracy” (ASTV Phuchatkan, May 29, 2009).
Finally, who should be the first leader of the New Politics Party? On July 3, the PAD announced the results of its poll of 22,013 participants of the events on May 24-25. The ‘will of the PAD people’ (which Sondhi had said would determine his decision regarding the position of party leader) was clear: almost 54 percent wanted Sondhi; 17 percent favored Chamlong; and 15 percent preferred Somkiat. Somsak and Phiphob were even less popular, with 6 and 5 percent, respectively (Bangkok Post, July 4, 2009). Two days earlier already, Panthep Phuaphongphan had published a column in ASTV Phuchatkan headlined, “‘I don’t want [to be the New Politics Party leader], but I must be’: When ‘Sondhi’ is ready to assume the position of leader of the New Politics Party!” Sondhi was quoted as follows:
Since the year 2005 until today, my life has completely changed. These days, I do not do anything any longer for myself, not even the smallest thing. Nowadays, everything I do is for nation and country, for Nation, Religion, and the Monarchy.
Why would Sondhi Limthongkul, one might ask, want to dedicate his life to nation and country, and even to a stale and paternalist establishment ideology rejected by many, when the challenge of creating a forward-looking pluralistic democracy in Thailand would rather suggest a dedication to one’s equal fellow citizens?
This post is extracted from a contribution to the book Legitimacy Crisis and Political Conflict in Thailand, edited by Marc Askew. It will be published later this year by Silkworm Books, under the auspices of the King Prajadhipok Institute (KPI).
Michael H. Nelson is a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.