Politics returning to the ‘bad’ old days

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Rebuilding the checks and balances is the only way to get out of this vicious circle

A fragmented political landscape seems to be upcoming. The Democrats are not on the best of terms with their allies, whereas the opposition Pheu Thai Party – and its potential defectors – are lurking nearby and ready to form any partnership that could help them grab power. The People’s Alliance for Democracy has decided to form a new political party, and while its anti-Thaksin stand will prevent an immediate association with Pheu Thai, the new force will have to slug it out with the Democrats for political territory.

The big picture will get more and more blurred as the idealism that seemed to influence the sharp political divide over the past few years has started to fade into the background. Vested interests will dictate future political realignments, although that will happen against a backdrop of unpredictability generated by the man on the run. Thaksin Shinawatra, in his last phone-ins to Pheu Thai leaders, was said to be still up for a new fight, although party insiders claimed he did not sound as convincing as before.

After the painful experience of the past three years, replacing the dangerous national divide – which occasionally gave us real fears of a civil war – with a free-for-all political mud war may not be such a bad thing. As much as we hated this kind of politics in the past, we have somewhat come to miss its power to keep everyone on their toes. In the chaos, we had some balances.

Nobody will be too big for his britches, and everyone will be more or less insecure. That we have learned is the most important thing. And although the current system is far from perfect, we like the fact that mere suspicions about graft have forced delays of key government projects. Only the “chaos theory” can give us this, because there have been times when critics of the NGV bus scheme could have easily been deemed “unpatriotic”.

The Democrats have pushed through the staggering borrowing programme, but not without getting a strong reminder that a lot of people are sceptical and will be watching closely. The parliamentary debate has ended, and the much-criticised economic plan scraped through, but the ruling party will by no means feel stable enough to do as it pleases.

The Newin Chidchob camp, meanwhile, may choose to rock the coalition boat as its bus project has been stuck in limbo. Again, the faction knows it is not strong enough to arm-twist any ally or frighten any foe, let alone make the public accept any highly suspicious project. If the faction betrays the Democrats now, it will need support from Pheu Thai to oust the ruling party from power. Has Pheu Thai forgotten the Newin defection that hurt it so badly?

The fading shadow of Shinawatra Thaksin means a Pheu Thai-Newin reunion is as likely as an alliance between the Democrats and some Pheu Thai members. Politics has reacquired its “there are no real foes or true friends” mantra, and this, ironically, may keep the Democrat-Newin uneasy association on for a while longer. Yet the Democrats can be anything but complacent, because this kind of situation doomed their government in 1995 following a relatively minor land-grabbing scandal in Phuket.

Perhaps Thai democracy works best in an atmosphere where nobody is made omnipresent by the ballot box. Although this means the government may fold every one or two years, but when compared with the past two years that seems very acceptable.

The irony is that it took a great disaster, resulting from our disdain of the free-for-all formula, to make us appreciate its virtues. But now that we have naturally returned to the old order, the question is how we can avoid going in a vicious circle.

All we need is a true revival of checks and balances, like the ones that banished Sanan Kachornprasart when he appeared at his political peak and effectively handled big-name election candidates accused of poll fraud. With that kind of system, the strength or fragility of a government is not determined as much by parliamentary numbers or how many factions there are.

“Nobody is perfect” is always the main argument to defend democracy whenever it produces political villains. True enough. But more importantly, for democracy to survive, it must create a working environment where nobody can feel too secure, and where “imperfect” characters do not have the illusion that they are otherwise.

By The Nation
Published on June 21, 2009

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