Serious Politics and the Democrats

One feature of political parties that have enjoyed power in a democracy and then been voted out, especially when the defeat has been resounding, is that those who are committed to returning to power under democratic means have not only re-examined their ideology and the policies that flow from this but, perhaps even more important, is the discipline that leading party members are obliged to accept as the price for returning to credibility with the voters. The Labour Party under Tony Blair, the Democrats under Bill Clinton and especially Barack Obama are perhaps the most obvious examples of this – party ideology was (often in a series of bloody confrontations in political terms) forcibly readjusted to the new reality brought about by electoral victory by opponents and leading member required to keep on-message in supporting those changes. This is not perfect since the process colludes with the political environment stimulated by modern media that regards all forms of discussion or debate as evidence of disunity or the result of a ‘gaffe.’ Important debates are, therefore, stifled or held in secret without much public participation.

To what extent has Thailand’s Democrat Party followed this process? Well, there has certainly been little public debate of ideology or policies. In opposition, the Democrats consistently opposed every policy of the democratically-elected government, frequently in ad hominem terms. Now placed in power as a result of a series of deeply undemocratic activities, the Democrats have appropriated many of the same policies, albeit occasionally under different names. It would be reasonable to say that the Democrats have changed their ideology as a result of a shift in public opinion except that there is no coherent ideology and government spokespeople continue to talk in terms of being ‘virtuous’ and ‘technically-competent’ people – it is managerialism with the Thai characteristics of patriarchy and deference to the ruling classes.

Distinct from what they do, can anyone honestly say what, apart from office, the Democrats stand intellectually?

As for discipline, well, the Cabinet is already a shambles. The latest idiocy is a series of outright, inflammatory lies from Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban. One Cabinet Minister has already been forced out after a corruption scandal and several more are likely to follow – and this with all the ‘institutional benefits’ that the government supports. Are these people really serious politicians? Or are they just exercising their birthright of power?



Do these three leaders really have anything in common?

All three came to power as a result of innovative research techniques – the extensive use of focus groups to determine the response of different groups of people to various policy suggestions.

All three sought – with great electoral success – to bring together a broad coalition to install in power a set of core principles which had not been electorally popular before. In the USA, the Republican party has dominated presidential office throughout the twentieth century, while in the UK the Labour Party had not been in power since 1979. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party brought together a very wide range of interests centred on the desire to enact pro-poor policies redistributing resources from Bangkok to the rural poor – a policy that had never been seriously implemented previously.

All three faced legal challenges by right wing opponents unable to defeat them electorally (Clinton was, disgracefully, impeached over the Lewinsky fiasco and huge amounts of money and time were spent trying to find something wrong in his personal dealings, Blair was faced by threats of war crimes and corruption that have also failed to produce substantive evidence, Thaksin has been placed under a court empowered by the military junta that ousted him).

All three were highly charismatic individuals who reached out to the public, occasionally over the heads of governmental institutions when they considered these to be obstructive – Clinton had to deal with the unpleasant Gingrich factions that controlled much of government, Blair was impatient with many British institutions, Thaksin too had those problems which led of course to the military coup when he tried to make institutions such as the army subject to civilian rule.

Clinton left office very popular and was succeeded by Al Gore who failed to get elected. Blair was succeeded by Gordon Brown who seems set to lead the Labour Party to a disastrous defeat. Thaksin’s successor – discounting the disastrous junta regime of General Surayud – was Samak Sundaravej who has been removed from office by a court decision, although he did lead the PPP to electoral success.

Clinton-Blair-Thaksin- their enemies loathe them with irrational intensity.