Inspired by Nicholas Farrelly’s recent post, “Analysing Thailand’s détente”, in this essay I will try to make some sense of the compromise game between the Pheu Thai Party and the so-called ammat network. Why do both groups seek a compromise after an ostensible collision in the past few years? What can the liberal-minded do in this political setting?
Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party
With hindsight, it was Thaksin’s hand-picking of Yingluck Shinawatra as number one party-list candidate that should be considered the first détente signal sent by the Pheu Thai Party to the ammat. Through trial and error, Thaksin and his allies have learned to divide political powers between those that can bring them into office and those that can depose them. Hence they seem to focus on the former power when elections loom large, and on the latter power when elections are in the distant future.
From a structural perspective, such a power separation has emerged out of the political turmoil of recent years to become a Thai-style ‘check-and-balance’ system both now and probably also in the foreseeable future. As elections have gained ground in Thai politics, and political parties have become increasingly institutionalised, the ammat’s veto authority has also been empowered and consolidated. A zero-sum game is rare in Thai politics.
Finishing a four-year term in office and bringing Thaksin home are the two ultimate goals of the Pheu Thai Party. But why has Thaksin, despite a landslide election victory, rushed into this compromise game – rather than waiting for better timing or even an opportunity to eradicate ammat’s power? The most important drive can be conceptualised as the increasing ‘transaction cost’ that an economically rational person like Thaksin will try to minimise. The gigantic costs of running politics from abroad during the street protests should be obvious. But daily operation also requires time and budgets for bargaining, monitoring and enforcing. Before the general election last year, there was a report suggesting that Thaksin had 8 mobile phones with 20 SIM cards accompanying him at all times. The numbers might be higher with the Pheu Thai as the governing party. Thai politicians are prone to moral-hazard conduct whenever the party leader does not keep a weather eye on his members. The 2007 Constitution further divests the clout of the party’s leader vis-à-vis his members.
The tasks of bargaining, monitoring and enforcing will be more difficult once the 111 former executives of the now-defunct Thai Rak Thai Party return to the public domain. The multipolar future will pose the risk of Thaksin losing sight of daily political business, if he is still forced to work from overseas.
The Ammat network
If Thaksin worries over the transaction costs of running politics, the ammat network incurs the rising ‘transition cost’ of succession, not only at the top level but also amongst senior-ranking personnel. The 2006 coup and consequent judicial prescriptions – intended to be a miracle cure – have proved to be a dose for a suicide pact instead. Past and current secrets – political, personal and economic – of the ammat have numerous action-packed plots, thereby drawing undivided attention from both the Red Shirts and the salim. Thaksin’s transaction cost is calculable but the ammat’s transition cost depends on how people ‘perceive’ its moral value. Most Thais may acknowledge the bad things that the ammat has perpetrated, but they perceive greater merit in either supporting it or turning a blind eye to its misdemeanours. However, while a positive public perception has been overwhelmingly promoted to reach saturation point in recent years, its ‘perceived downside’ has been not only heightened but also has room for further movement. In other words, the moral margin of the ammat is deteriorating over the course of confrontation.
In business terms, what the ammat is doing at the moment is ‘consolidating’ its core power and laying-off its non-performing subsidiaries. Some draconian laws, as well as military and judicial appointments, are its core sources of power. The nominal People’s Alliance for Democracy and Democrat Party are debits and should stand on their own feet (until they succeed in rebranding themselves). Moreover, the silence of the ammat is just the tip of the iceberg. The old soldiers never die and are not bypassed – they are just byzantine. For evidence of how still waters run deep, see what another article says regarding the undercover operations of the military.
Regarding the Democrats, who seem to be the sore losers of the compromise game, we should not forget that they actually retreat into their comfort zone – Opposition – where their real comparative advantage lies and where they always sow the seeds of popularity.
Yingluck is the best choice of leader for none but the ammat. For the ammat, Yingluck is functionally equivalent, though inferior, to Abhisit Vejjajiva (that is, being a premier but acting as a spokesperson) – but endowed with Thaksin’s mass appeal. To cope with the recent rise of mass politics, the Pheu Thai Party, with Yingluck as prime minister, is therefore the most effective buffer and messenger that can soothe the angry throng and prolong the entrenched culture of elite impunity. Learned from their own experience with the docile salim, most people in the ammat network simply believe that the masses are always submissive to their beloved leaders, so the Red Shirts should be tamed easily by Thaksin and Yingluck.
The most crucial facilitating factor of the compromise game is the Ratchadaphisek land purchase case, which costs Thaksin two years in jail. Such a two-year condition is accidentally optimal. For it is not too radical to push Thaksin to the otherwise long-term tit-for-tat strategy, and not too trivial as a practical bargaining chip for the ammat. This is also due to the fact that, unlike in other colonised countries in Asia, no political hero in Thailand has been in jail. Thai leaders do not make a virtue out of detention.
Policy Consequences of the compromise game
A useful indicator of the compromise game is found in the realm of policy. Like politics and policy outcomes after the May 1992 event, elite compromise means no structural, radical change in the state apparatus and policy orientation. There will hardly be such a thing as grand bureaucratic reform, industrial upgrading, tax reforms or military budget cuts – all witnessed in Thaksin’s first administration, and to a lesser extent the Chatichai government. To please its constituencies without alienating its enemies, the Pheu Thai Party has moved towards more ‘populist’ policy packages, those that do not create severe losers (apart from the environment), such as social policies, direct money transfer, or infrastructural megaprojects. The minimum wage hike and constitutional amendment will be the most ambitious attempts. Long-term developmental plans, which may hurt some sectors but prove beneficial for the country, are trading for short-term benefits that do not trample over anybody — even the salim, who will enjoy more royalist campaigns and ceremonies during the Yingluck administration.
The Double-edged Sword of Thaksin’s return
The mission to bring Thaksin home may lead to unintended consequences once it is completed. While in exile, Thaksin can pay as much lip service as he wants in addition to reconstructing his image as a democratic figurehead. For example, in March 2009 he declared that if soldiers shot the protesters, he would return immediately to lead the march himself. In fact, that did not happen but most supporters appreciated his speech and understood that Thaksin was giving long-distance moral support. The expectation of both the party members and the voters will change once Thaksin resides in Bangkok. He will need to undertake a risky repositioning yet again. For one thing, Thaksin is not a traditional elite who can schedule the timing and set the scene for an appearance at his own discretion. Elected politicians are underprivileged as their canvassers and voters expect daily, or at least weekly, action.
What the Liberal-minded Can Do: Figure It Out
Of course, Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party are sympathetic to the Red Shirt protesters who fought the deadly fight for them. However, they have their own way of compensating their sympathisers by materialising such a value with higher rates of remuneration. On the one hand, they think that extra rates of calculation should compensate making a human sacrifice. On the other hand, appointing Nattawut Saikua and Jatuporn Prompan to the cabinet in the nick of time is a smart move to ‘domesticate’ the only two power brokers who can effectively rally the disappointed factions against the party itself.
If my analysis is mainly true, New Mandala readers may ask what the liberal-minded can do to support further structural and democratic reform amid this compromise game? In my humble opinion, Pheu Thai voters will have more bargaining power when the next general election draws close. Well-documented proposals should be ready when such a period comes. The time may approach sooner if the party loses in local elections on a few consecutive occasions, or Thaksin experiences difficulties in repositioning himself at home.
In the meantime, the liberal-minded could encourage some credible agencies or (foreign) universities to conduct surveys or polls on how Thais think about the lèse-majesté law, the Computer Crime Act, the role of the military and extra-constitutional power in politics. Yet blending the ‘appropriate’ questions holds the key to legitimising these sensitive issues, but such questionnaires are manageable after all. The ultimate goal is to have clear figures and numbers, which can be put forward to the mainstream media and the Pheu Thai Party. The current debate on lèse-majesté and the like is based solely on principles, be they democratic values or human rights.
This is necessary, but not sufficient, to induce the undecided public and sustain the reform momentum. The Thai power structure may impede democratic progress. However, theories suggest that at a moment of ‘critical juncture’ the power of structure will be looser and human agency more determinative.
Veerayooth Kanchoochat is a PhD Candidate at the University of Cambridge