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To elect or not to elect?: a critical question in Thailand

By Nattavud Pimpa - posted Tuesday, 21 January 2014


It has been over a week since Suthep Thaugsuban led massive protests against the current Government in Thailand. He has pledged that demonstrators will remain on the streets until the country's "tyrant government" has been deposed. Still, a number of Thais and international observers question his attempt to boycott the election. They also wonder if his anti-election effort will wipe away corruption from Thailand.

As the leader of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) and one of the senior Democrat Party members, Suthep Thaugsuban has harnessed anger at nepotism, corruption and abuses of power during the regime of the Shinawatra Empire. The Government, however, still retains its political support in most rural areas in Thailand, due to its popular schemes such as cheap healthcare, village funds, and rice farming subsidies.

The current Suthep's movement requested the current Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra and her cabinet members to step down. He also calls for a reform of Thai elections. It is obvious that he has determined to replace the current Shinawatra regime with, in his terms, the People's Council. Vetoing the forthcoming election in February is what he and his disciples set as one of the key political reform strategies. Yet, one simple question remains unanswered: Is an election the solution for Thailand?

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The argument from PDRC is the corrupted election will lead Thailand back to the Shinawatra regime. The common hypothesis among the Thai middle-class, that Thaksin Shinawatra can buy votes directly and indirectly, is powerful enough to boycott the election. Nevertheless, the majority of Thais who disagree with this claim argue that an election is the right political mechanism to protect their civil rights.

The poor in Thailand have long suffered the image of being 'country bumpkins' and 'uneducated citizens' of Thailand. This is seen through the eyes of the middle class who have long possessed political and economic power in the kingdom. As reported by the World Bank, in the last decade, growth in Thailand has lifted the standard of living among Thais, although income disparities between the poor and the rich have not been substantially improved and remain very large. Access to media, knowledge and technology clearly push the majority of Thailand in rural areas to request PDRC people to 'respect their votes.' A decision to boycott this coming election by PDRC will worsen 'the great divide' in the kingdom.

Furthermore, two major political parties, Pheu Thai and the Democrat, must openly discuss strategies to reform themselves. The lack of reform dialogues among the members of both parties will lead Thailand to endless political and social conflict. Pheu Thai, as a party for the working class, needs to move beyond 'the Shinawatras' management style' and promote this coming election as the first ladder to reform Thailand. The party and its policies must be led by the new management team members who have no links with the old Shinawatra empire. Corruption, otherwise, will remain the weakness of this party.

The Democrat also needs to reform its political policies and strategies. As a major party for Bangkok and Southern Thailand, it failed to win the hearts of the rest of Thailand for a number of reasons. The movement to shut down Bangkok is clearly seen as an elite movement. It certainly confirms the Democrat's status as the party for the elites. To reform its policies, this party needs to build trust among Thai voters that the Democrat represents people from all walks of life, not the elites. New leadership and management are certainly required in this process. More importantly, participation in the election with clear actions on political reform with all stakeholders will confirm the party's altruism.

At its current stage, most Thais see no light at the end of the tunnel. Boycotting the election may be seen as a step for political reform in the eyes of PDRC. It, however, will lead the country to a political vacuum and economic turmoil. It is speculated by the Asian Development Bank that if the political situation returns to normal and there is an elected Government, Thailand GDP may reach about 3% in 2014.

Bomb attacks over the weekend were the first step of violence in Thailand. These endless political movements and protests will escalate brutal actions, and potentially lead to a military coup, that will damage the country. Clearly, it is time for PDRC and the Government to discuss the meaning and consequences of their actions and where to go from here. This is a vital test for Thai democracy.

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About the Author

Dr Nattavud Pimoa is an Associate Professor in international business at the School of Management, RMIT University.

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