The PAD’s dilemma: Popular versus parliamentary politics


DOES the People’s Alliance for Democracy think it should transform itself into a political party?

Yes and no.

Technically, its nominees have registered a new party under the name of Tien Hang Dhamma (“Candle of Dharma”) – just in case.

Unofficially, the debate within the PAD leadership in the past months has inclined towards forming a political party to fight for “new politics”. The timing and leadership structure remain to be settled.

Officially, no decision has been made. The PAD wants the public to decide whether it should remain a pressure group or turn itself into a full-fledged political party.

“We are only at the sounding-out stage,” declared Sondhi Limthongkul, one of the core leaders, in a public pronouncement over the weekend.

But if you listen carefully to another core leader, Suriyasai Katasila, the decision has effectively been made to take that big and crucial plunge. He told The Nation earlier this week:

“We must say that it has not materialised yet, though the possibility is very high. We are still debating the direction of the party, the reason we are setting it up and how it can work as a link between the political and the people sectors. We are still looking for a prominent figure to lead the party.”

If the general decision has been made, why the reluctance to make it public?

The reasons are simple. On the one hand, the PAD’s leaders aren’t sure whether they will remain relevant after deciding to enter the field of electoral politics. On the other hand, they are not too confident that they can continue to be a force to reckon with if they retain their role as a “watchdog” on the sidelines of mainstream politics.

The PAD’s love-hate relationship with the Democrat Party under Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva is another factor under consideration. The fact that Sondhi has been attacking Deputy Premier Suthep Thaugsuban points to the fragile relationship between the PAD and the Democrats.

The PAD’s leaders feel that the Democrats owe them an undeniable political debt. The Democrats, while not admitting it in public, realise that without the public protests engineered by the PAD that launched the historic 193-day rally against Thaksin and his nominees, they wouldn’t have ended up being the core of the current coalition government.

But the Abhisit government, for obvious reasons, can’t afford to be seen to be too closely associated with the yellow shirts while trying to convince the red shirts that the government isn’t biased against them.

The PAD’s leaders inevitably think the Democrats are basically opportunists seizing on the chance to ride the protest crest into power – and conveniently sidelining the PAD when the latter has become more a nuisance than a political ally.

The PAD knows, of course, that its main enemy is Thaksin and the red shirts – with Pheu Thai as the mainstream political party and the red movement as its political arm. The yellow movement, to remain effective in the future, will have to build up its own political infrastructure to match that of the reds.

In other words, the PAD doesn’t trust the Democrats as a solid political alliance. It is looking to the future and sees a long drawn-out battle with the red shirts.

Without a political base in Parliament, backed by its own popular yellow-shirted movement, the PAD’s leadership sees itself as badly weakened by “politics as usual”.

There lies the dilemma. While they believe mainstream politics is vital to their long-term survival, the PAD’s leaders also believe they are more effective as leaders of “popular politics”. They fear that electoral politics could dilute their direct connection with the public and reduce their crowd-stirring clout.

Suriyasai underscored the mixed feelings of the PAD leadership when he said: “All leaders (of the PAD) agree that we need to establish a party. They just cannot agree upon having all five PAD leaders become party executives or party leaders since some believe the leaders should continue with people politics.”

In other words, the PAD is caught in a Catch-22 situation: In order to remain a powerful political pressure group, it has to embark on mainstream politics, which could in turn weaken its very own non-mainstream success so far.

Put another way, in order for the PAD to galvanise society into “new politics”, it has to win in the game of “old politics”.

And that’s a tall order indeed.

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation
Published on March 12, 2009


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