Sunday, August 7, 2011

Only major overhaul can save Democrat Party

Abhisit Vejjajiva is back as the Democrat leader, with perhaps the most difficult mission in his political life: How to win back the trust of the majority of Thais who have somehow been convinced that the country's oldest political party isn't fit to run the nation anymore.

The Democrats haven't won a general election in 19 years. The reasons are clear and simple: The electorate simply doesn't trust that the Democrats could get things done. They have proved incapable of crisis management. And they aren't particularly good at managing during peace time either. Once they were elected because of their stand against dictatorship and corruption. Now, after two years running the country with Abhisit at the helm, that positive image has also been badly eroded. Now, opponents say the Democrats were hiding behind the military shield to run its business of governing the country -- with disastrous outcome.

The party that once stood for liberalism and freedom of expression has turned conservative and defensive. When Abhisit declared his "Nine Iron-Clad Rules" for his Cabinet to underline his policy against corruption and conflict of interests among his ministers, he appeared to try to revive the party's attempt to make integrity the priority of governance. But he failed miserably to live up to his pledge of keeping his Cabinet honest and accountable when some of his coalition partners were blatantly breaking the ground rules.

It was a clear miscalculation on Abhisit's part when he decided to lead his party to form a coalition with Bhumjaithai and Chat Thai Pattana. He thought he could rein them in with his public stand on political ethics. But when he could not build up popular support and failed to connect directly with the grass-roots populace, Abhisit painted himself into a corner -- a corner that forced him to compromise with unsavoury elements among his coalition partners and an uncomfortable alliance with the army.

Abhisit and his No 2, Suthep Thuagsuban, the party's secretary general and the most visible "king-maker" of the previous government, were never a happy pair to begin with. Their contrast in character was undeniable: Abhisit the rule-of-law,calm, considerate guy; Suthep the end-justifies-the-means fighter. But they were operating together on the public understanding that the prime minister somehow must be able to keep his deputy in check. Somewhere during the crisis of April-May, 2010, Suthep, together the top brass,obviously took charge, with or without the premier's full consent, and certain aspects of the operations to prevent the red-shirt protest from getting violent got badly out of control.

Once again, the Democrat Party, without a clear majority of its own, had to rely on other parties and the army to muddle through.

On the home front, Abhisit may have tried to expand the popular base of the Democrat Party by going "populist" in a number of ways to fend off the Pheu Thai Party's much more aggressive promises of popular platform. But he also faced criticism for not consulting enough party executives, especially the senior advisers who considered the party's youngest leader's self-confidence bordering at times on hubris and arrogance. Bhichai Rattakul, one of the former party leaders, made no secret of his attitude towards Abhisit when he told us: "Abhisit is smart, intelligent and honest. But he did not know how to use people. He was surrounded by a small group of people who gave him the wrong kind of information. He did not consult enough with senior advisers of the party. And even when the senior people offered him advice, he didn't seem to heed it."

The Democrat Party is due for a major overhaul if it is to regain sufficient public trust to prove that it isn't "the best opposition party in Thai politics...and nothing else." The Democrat Party's long-held rulea for promotion based of seniority of party executives doesn't fit the new political environment that badly needs new blood, new ideas and innovation that will break out of the current national malaise.

The country badly needs a new political model based on a renewed sense of public service of the new generation and sacrifice by the privileged to help lift the disadvantaged to a new level that will erase the growing chasm between the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the complacent privileged class and the frustrated working class.

Top on the priority of Abhisit's new term as the Democrat leader is perhaps to launch a full-scale, thorough investigation on why the Democrat Party has never won the hearts of the people in the Northeast, the poorest electorate. The traditional, simplistic conclusion that vote-buying was the only reason for this state of affairs just isn't good enough anymore. The red-shirt phenomenon underlines more serious problems than just money politics.

The country badly needs a new kind of politics that doesn't rely simply on populist policies that attract votes but can't really solve serious deep-rooted problmes of income dispartiy, corruption and subjucation of the poor and helpless to political dependency. If the Democrats can't turn over a new leaf to achieve this new challenge, it would certainly be destined for a prolonged winter of lost hope and betrayal for those who are desperately seeking an alternative to the current brand of politics.

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