Interview with Prajak Kongkirati: Democrats as catalyst to political deadlock (yet again)

 
Thailand’s Democrat Party, led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, decided to boycott the February 2 general election because, they claim, the Thai political system has collapsed and become corrupted. There is a need to reform the country’ political system before the next election is held, they insist. 
 
This is not the first time that the oldest political party in Thailand has boycotted general elections. The first boycott took place in February 1952 when its first party leader, Khuang Aphaiwong, decided to boycott the election giving as a reason that the election was unfair. The second boycott took place in early 2006 when the Democrats decided not to contest the April 2006 election as it claimed the House dissolution by then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was illegitimate. The two boycotts were followed by political disturbances and coups d’état in September 1957 and September 2006. 
 
Questions arise. Why have the Democrats, the oldest political party in the kingdom, repeated their decision? Will the boycott lead to yet another coup d’état? What is the motivation of Abhisit and Suthep Thaugsuban, Democrat Secretary General-turned-protest leader? Prachatai’s Thaweeporn Kummetha talked to Prajak Kogkirati, a young and promising political scientist from Thammasat University, Bangkok. Prajak is also a leading member of the Assembly for the Defence of Democracy (AFDD), known to Thais as Sor Por Por.   
 
This interview was first published in Thai on Prachatai. The interview was edited to suit a non-Thai audience.
 
 
Prajak Kongkirati
 
Will the February 2 election be illegitimate since the main opposition party will not contest it?
 
The election is not illegitimate because other parties are contesting in the poll. The situation is different from the 2006 election when all other parties boycotted the poll. A boycott by only one party does not make this election lose legitimacy. Actually we have to ask why only this party does not contest the election. 
 
The Democrats have tried rebuff the allegation that they are not playing within the democratic rules of the game. They insist the Democrat Party is a political party and is following the rules of the game. Do you agree that the Democrats are still playing within the democratic rules of the game?
 
If they were still playing within the democratic rules of the game, they would have to contest the election because to run in the polls is a prime duty of a political party. Political parties are different from interest groups and social movements. Political parties exist in order to propose platforms and policies to voters through elections. The Democrats have not only failed in their basic duty as a political party but their supporters will also lose the opportunity to have them as their representatives. About 11-12 million people voted for the Democrat Party in the last election. Moreover, the Democrats will then not be able to perform their duty in the formal political system, which designates politicians to rise to power through elections. Moreover, their proposed reform does not contradict elections. The election is, in other words, a process for proposing a blueprint of reforms for the voters to choose. This is what other developed countries around the world do. There is no such thing as reform without elections. 
 
The Democrats and the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), led by Suthep Thaugsuban, reason that the Thai political system has been completely corrupted. To accept the election is to accept a corrupted political system. What do you think about this argument?
 
To answer this, we have to examine Thailand’s elections. Several research studies have shown that Thailand’s general elections have been relatively free and fair. This is unlike the election in 1957 and elections in Indonesia under the regime of then President Suharto who threatened the opposition, coerced them until they could not campaign and forced voters to vote for only his party. We have not had that kind of election for a long time. It has changed to a real competition. There is no grave electoral fraud like in the past. 
 
What’s more, if the PDRC is able establish an unelected People’s Council, draft a new constitution and hold fresh elections afterward, people would definitely boycott that election. It seems the Democrats want to contest only the game they design. The 2007 Constitution was drafted by people who are against Thaksin. When Abhisit became Prime Minister, his Party rewrote the section of the charter dealing with elections, increasing the number of seats for party-list MPs from 100 to 125, as they believed that they performed better in the party-list poll. If the numbers of party-list MP seats increased, they would get more MPs. The Democrats have already amended the electoral system to one most beneficial to them. Therefore, it is not even understandable that the Democrat can boycott an election they themselves designed.  
 
The Democrats boycotted elections in 1952 and 2006 and now this latest boycott. Do you think each boycott is different? 
 
The reasons are no different. They thought up something in order to avoid the contest. They talk about the results in the future that have not yet happened. How could they know for sure that the election would be full of fraud, or already conclude that there would be no change after the election? If the Democrats proposed a better platform and if, as they believe, the great mass of people of about five to six million who have turned out to join the PDRC rallies, support them, why didn't they think that they had a good chance to win this election? They should at least get more seats from the party-list system. However, at their peak, they still decided to boycott the election. The question arises: this may indicate that the Democrats are aware that the majority of voters do not really support them as they claim. In other words, they are afraid [of losing yet another election]. 
 
The 2006 boycott and this year’s boycott are actually the same. The only difference is that in 2006, the Democrat party did not lead the street rallies by themselves. It was the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) who paved the way and then the Democrats boycotted the election. However, this time, the Democrats have done everything to prevent the elections. They themselves lead the rallies. This is their strategy: move the Party to support the street protests. Therefore their claim that they lost faith in elections and the current parliamentary system is because the Democrats themselves chose to solve the problem outside parliament in the first place. The Democrats themselves created deadlock in the country’s democratic rule.
 
If the election is eventually held and a government is successfully formed, and parliament has no Democrat representatives at all, will this be the beginning of the extinction of the Party?  
 
The decision to boycott the election and commit the Party to the political movement has a very dim chance of success. It’s a risky bet. What will they do if the movement loses? I think if they ran, they would win even more seats than the last election. However, the Party’s credibility has declined after they decided not to run in the election.  
 
This will be a turning point for the Democrat Party. The Party will lose popularity in the long run since the popularity of politicians/MPs/parties comes from the party’s performance as representatives. MPs from other parties, not only Pheu Thai, will take the opportunity when the Democrats are absent to work hard to sway the voters.  This is obviously a short-sighted kind of move. The rally will soon end, but the political party should continue.
 
Ending the so-called Thaksin regime through an unelected People’s Council is clearly illegitimate. The best way for the Democrats to eliminate the Thaksin regime is to win the election. It would be the most legitimate way of ending the Thaksin regime. Thai politics will stabilize in the long run. We will no longer need to have fighting in the streets. Instead of blowing whistles, they should go to vote for the Democrats, try to give them a landslide victory. Anyway, the Democrats must first not give up on democratic rule. 
 
In order to win elections, the Democrats have to ride the wave of the majority in the country, not the privileged minority.  Abhisit has always failed because he only pleases people who already like the Party, such as the middle class, Bangkokians and people in the South. They will never be able to win an election that way. To win elections, they have to expand their base, convince people who have never voted for them before, such as people in the Northeast. The Democrats do not realize that they aren’t actually fighting Thaksin, but 15-16 million voters who have never voted for them in the past ten years. They don’t realize that even if they could chase Thaksin and his cronies out of the country, these 15 million voters will not vote for them anyway. Do not say that all of them are engaged in vote-buying. Alongkorn Pollabutr, former Deputy Leader of the Party, has admitted that in the last election, the Democrats spent more money than the Pheu Thai party. The Democrats have to first be honest about this truth. 
 
What makes the Democrat Party take a stance that turns away from the politics in the democratic rule? And do you think most Democrat MPs agree with the decision to boycott the election?
 
I don’t think all of the Democrat members agree with this risky bet, but they may not be able to disobey. We have to wait and see if any of the Democrat members resign such as the faction of Alongkorn, who tried to push for party reform, and party members who think this bet is too risky for them and may lead to the end of their political careers. We have to understand that, in the end, all MPs want to run in the polls and get elected, otherwise, why have they become politicians? If the conflict becomes apparent to the public, the boycott will lose its credibility even more. We may have to ask who really benefits from the decision. The faction of Abhisit and Suthep may be the only group who benefits from this strategy.  
 
The main problem of the Democrat Party is that the Party is now dominated by Abhisit and Suthep, whose political careers have a dim future because they both face several serious charges [as consequences of the 2010 crackdown.] They have a strong motivation to make a move outside the democratic rules of the game. They have nothing to lose. The two are leading the Party to the abyss just for their immediate advantage. 
 
The boycotts in 1952 and 2006 partly paved the way for unconstitutional power to intervene. Do you think this boycott will lead to another coup d’état?
 
It is hard to predict because there are several factors involved. But I could say that the boycott is one piece of the jigsaw that may cause the intervention of unconstitutional power. In other words, boycotting elections is leading Thai politics into deadlock. An election is one of the ways to solve problems in democratic countries. If we have a poll, we will pass through the deadlock. But if the elite who support the Democrats want a deadlock, they will have to make sure that such an election cannot be held. The boycott is one piece of the jigsaw that helps create a political vacuum, ultimately paving the way for an unconstitutional seizure of power. However, since other political parties have not followed the Democrats, we have to wait and see if the boycott will lead to this result.