WHEN most opposition MPs talk about “political reform” what they actually mean is changing the constitutional provisions that will win them the most votes in the next election.
That, of course, is a far cry from what the rest of us consider to be the most important element of the democratic process.
For most voters, I presume, “political reform” indicates raising the bar of politics, improving the quality of politicians – and rewriting the ground rules so that we can kick out political skunks.
That’s why, when you leave politics entirely to Thai politicians, what starts out as “political reform” will inevitably end up being nothing more than granting amnesty to those convicted of political crimes. Any change they would eventually approve would be nothing more than the few clauses in the constitution that they have tried – but failed – to circumvent.
In other words, they want the charter to be amended in such a way that if they were caught cheating red-handed, they should be given a chance to wriggle out of the punishment.
You and I may think it’s thoroughly disgusting, but that, in their convoluted lexicon, is what “true democracy” is all about.
To this particular group of MPs, if you want to talk about democracy or national reconciliation, their main condition is to grant clemency to the 111 former executive members of the disbanded Thai Rak Thai Party, plus 109 former executives of the dissolved People Power (Palang Prachachong), Chat Thai and Matchima parties
That’s the trap Premier Abhisit Vejjajiva was falling into in Parliament at the end of the two-day debate on the “Bloody Songkran” debacle late last week. That’s the black hole from which he tried to escape when he restated his position on the controversial issue.
In his first declaration, Abhisit said he was willing to consider an “amnesty” for political, not criminal, offences. He apparently thought that olive branch could calm the brewing political storm. But little did he realise that he was probably pouring oil onto the fire.
The premier then changed tack. He clarified in his Sunday television programme that what he had in mind was to invite all parties concerned to submit their proposals for amendment to the constitution to jump-start the process of political reform.
Abhisit made it clear in his latest statement that there would be no sweeping amnesty for all politicians banned from politics for five years.
They were all punished under Article 237 of the Constitution, which stipulates that executive members of a political party found to have been involved in electoral fraud will be suspended from politics for five years. That’s based on the principle of collective responsibility for executives of political parties.
That particular clause, in essence, was incorporated in the current charter because money politics had dominated the country for far too long.
Abhisit took a step back from his earlier position when he said, as soon as he floated the idea of a political amnesty, “there have been strong reactions, both pros and cons”.
That gave the premier a chance to reset his position: “What I have said is that we should put all suggestions on the table so that all parties concerned can discuss a way out. My stance is that only political offences would be considered. Criminal offences are out of the question.”
Abhisit then, in his own subtle way, threw a bombshell into the political arena: “It [the proposed amnesty] may not come with the proposing of a new bill. It may be in the form of a provisional clause of a new bill. Or we may go for a referendum. But I don’t want to be seen to be influencing the debate one way or the other.”
His dilemma apparently is that even some of the senior members of his own Democrat Party are against any move to offer clemency to the banned politicians.
Banyat Bantadthan, one of the most senior Democrats, went so far as to say publicly that if the amnesty bill went through, it would give Thaksin and his cronies a big boost.
But some of his coalition partners are putting pressure on Abhisit to proceed with the move. Of course, they stand to gain once clemency is granted.
How does he get out of this apparent stalemate?
You know Abhisit has suddenly matured when he said something to the effect: “Why don’t we ask the people to decide for us?”
You can say he is a true Democrat. Or you can say his learning curve in real-life politics is surprisingly short. He has managed to spring out of the corner with great agility.
PM Abhisit faces amnesty dilemma
Can he bring about reconciliation without weakening himself?
On the surface, it seems Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has covered the bumpiest parts of the road. Apparently nothing lying ahead can be worse than the Songkran events that could easily have doomed his government and political future, let alone put his life at stake. Now protesters have left the streets, and his enemies have been weakened, allowing Abhisit to look a bit further beyond when to keep troops in the barracks and when to send them out.
With that comes a new challenge. He has survived a crisis, probably through a combination of leadership and luck, and will now have to seize the little opportunity presented by the semblance of a political cease-fire. Just when he had almost given up on his own agenda of reconciling the nation, Abhisit is able to give it another look, if not another try yet. His renewed pledge to end the national divide may have been greeted with even more scepticism than when he was sworn in, but Abhisit has been given a first-hand warning of how bad things can get if the animosity between people wearing different colours continues to fester.
On Thursday, Abhisit said he needed six to eight months to steer the country out of the turmoil. Sceptics may say Thailand’s situation was worse in Abhisit’s fourth month than when he took office, and therefore things are unlikely to return to “normal” in October or December. And while threats of outright street violence have considerably subsided, the nation’s political intrigues have become more intense.
Thaksin Shinawatra and his men have gone completely underground, with thinly veiled threats to resort to violence to weaken the Bangkok government. But they may not be Abhisit’s biggest concern. Thailand’s political trouble has created a vacuum big enough to give anyone with ambition realistic hope of taking control. The emergence of the so-called blue-shirt movement, a strange, shadowy alliance of notorious and powerful political and military figures, may have alerted Abhisit to the danger of allowing real politics to be played too far outside the mainstream.
Whether or how much this has influenced his apparent leaning toward granting amnesty to banned politicians remains to be seen. However, Abhisit has already irked some of his supporters and puzzled his enemies by suggesting that such a pardon is a realistic option in the reconciliation scheme. Critics have closed in on him at the first hint of an amnesty, and rumblings of strong disapproval have come even from his own Democrat Party.
And whether or not amnesty is the most practical road towards reconciliation, Abhisit’s dilemma is clear-cut: the scheme will virtually set free more than 200 politicians who are either sworn enemies of the Democrat Party or simply could form new forces capable of tilting the political balance. Advocates of amnesty will argue that those politicians are more or less the Democrats’ political rivals already, so it’s up to Abhisit to choose between keeping them underground or bringing them up to the surface and letting them play politics the way it should be played.
In effect, if Abhisit is serious about the amnesty, he will be torn by the possibility that it may be either a noble undertaking or one with “suicide” written all over it. Unshackling those politicians will give Parliament greater legitimacy, at least in the eyes of existing critics, but the status quo may be rattled. As a national leader, however, Abhisit carries a responsibility far greater than that of a Democrat leader. There will be debate, criticism and warnings, but in the end he will have to work out the proposed amnesty in terms of how it will affect Thailand, not his political party.
The Thaksin implications will surely be used in the argument. In fact, the Thaksin factor now features in every crucial step that determines the political course of Thailand, for better or worse. While it is hard to totally ignore the possible effects of an amnesty on the man’s future, Abhisit will also have to weigh that against the effects of past political actions that took Thaksin very seriously. Abhisit may end up being either a hero or a villain, but there are varieties of those. Most heroes and villains are judged on what they do, very few on why they do it.