Opposition parties urged to reinvent themselves

News

The people’s granting of a mandate to Thai Rak Thai to form a one-party government does not mean Thailand no longer needs a system of checks and balances, leading academics said yesterday.

Instead of being discouraged by Thai Rak Thai’s landslide victory, opposition parties should review their strategies if they are to stay relevant and build political momentum against autocracy, they said. Thai Rak Thai’s triumph was the result of weakness within the Democrat Party, some academics suggested.

Voters did not have a decent alternative to the ruling party when they went to the polls on Sunday, because nobody emerged from the opposition as a legitimate rival to Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, they said.

“What they [the Democrats] have now is actually not much of a political party,” said Assoc Prof Kasian Tejapira of Thammasat University.

“Having been hollowed out into an almost empty shell by factional interests and in-fighting, their ‘virtual party’ voice merely echoes faction leaders and individual candidates most of the time.’’

Kasian’s advice to the Democrats and other opposition parties is for them to revive and re-invigorate themselves by opening up to the public and tackling politics in a new way.

“A political party should not belong solely to its membership, nor should the choice of party leadership belong exclusively to party members,’’ said the leading political scientist.

“The old way has resulted in a weird situation in which the public’s favourite is not the actual leader chosen by party members.

“The first item on the agenda, therefore, should be to open up the election of the party leadership to the public at large – members and non-members alike. Let the public decide in a virtual general plebiscite who they want as the leader of the opposition,” Kasian said. If opposition parties, particularly the Democrats, want to stay relevant, they have to build “a real mass party” and work on the three most urgent issues: policy corruption, manipulation of the media, and human-rights violations, said Chris Baker, who co-authored the book “Thaksin: the Business of Politics in Thailand’’.

“The major problem is going to be how to protect some public space for alternative opinions,’’ he told The Nation.

Most academics interviewed by The Nation agreed that for the opposition to be effective as a real mass party, the Democrats and their allies should expand politics beyond the scope of Parliament by working with citizens groups struggling to create checks and balances in society.

“The Democrat Party has to take up issues of concern to civil groups outside Parliament,’’ said Somchai Preechainlapakul, a law lecturer at Chiang Mai University.

“They have to be involved in social movements, rather than simply limit their role to narrow representative politics.’’

Prior to Sunday’s election, Somchai and a group of academics from his university launched a campaign encouraging people to vote for opposition parties so that they would be given enough leverage to maintain the checks-and-balances system.

But he admitted that his group had not been able to get its message across, as indicated by the landslide win for the ruling party.

With the strong prospect of one-party rule, what is urgently needed is the opening up of politics to participatory democracy, said Kasian.

Opposition parties should help bring all of society to democracy by serving as a bridge linking representative democracy with direct democracy and thereby creating a new power relationship between the government and citizens, he said. “Instead of offering themselves as ‘policy supermarkets’ catering to voters, opposition parties should act as centres of the national political community that help active citizens groups transform their political culture, ideals and values into practical policy proposals as well as strategies and tactics for political mobilisation,’’ Kasian said.

Published on February 08, 2005

Nantiya Tangwisutijit, Subhatra Bhumiprabhas

The Nation

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