20 July 2024

Even in an extremely-unlikely scenario that it ends up in the opposition bloc again, the Move Forward Party will still have to tussle with political gravity. And future tests will make the House speakership tug of war with the Pheu Thai Party seem like a kindergarten exam.

Move Forward has almost doubled in size and sat on the throne of being Thailand’s most popular political party. A few parties around it have been there before _ Pheu Thai, Democrat and an old version of the Chart Thai Pattana parties. Palang Pracharath came close in the 2019 election (but look where it is now) and even Bhumjaithai has been growing fast despite the pro-Move Forward and pro-Pheu Thai waves dominating the last national poll.

When the euphoria dies down, the immensity of the task ahead will sink in. Four years ago, Move Forward (Future Forward at the beginning) was just a new kid in town, wowing some people but making others frown. Despite the baptism of fire, serving in the opposition is virtually a nothing-to-lose undertaking when it comes to public sympathy.

On May 14, the party has emerged on the good side of the rough-and-tumble start. Very hard as it seemed, the past four years were actually easy.

Now, imagine a business intern leapfrogging everyone to become the head of a big company after just four years, having to chair executive meetings joined by people much older and making decisions that affect a countless number of people. That intern will try to overcome criticism about “inexperience” and prove that what won it the May 14 election _ fresh ideas _ matter much more.

There are a few things about the Prayut government that the public do not like. First, much of the Cabinet line-up came out of political compromises resulting in people with questionable qualifications or backgrounds taking up ministerial portfolios. Second, protests are not coped with properly, with measures alternating between too harsh and too soft. Third, cases negatively affecting government members went about surreptitiously or controversially, like the wristwatch uproar besetting Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan and scrutiny into past deeds of Thammanat Prompao.

Fourth, suspected shady deals between state authorities and underground people were too much for comfort. Fifth, the “preaching” by people at the top was also too much for comfort whereas democracy requires greater “respect” for different opinions.

Good news is that all of them are “old-politics” problems, something Move Forward has practically vowed to deal with differently. Bad news is that the expectations Move Forward is carrying are real and will not be treated like normal pledges political parties make before voters cast their ballots.

Simply speaking, the “old-politics” quicksand is huge and its sucking power is unbelievably strong. How to avoid falling into it must be Move Forward’s first priority. Questionable names in the Pita Cabinet will erode faith quicker than the horse-trading that Prayut Chan-o-cha had to accept while he ruled. The latter was a “dictator” who “force-fed” the Thai public inefficient administrators, Pita Limjaroenrat said it himself, so the Move Forward leader cannot be seen as doing the same thing.

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Then there is the monstrous issue of nepotism and cronyism. Old politics buries wrongdoings if tackling them does not “serve” the government or if it will benefit the enemies. Setting a good example will be absolutely painful and incredibly difficult, but if Move Forward manages to do it, the party can proudly declare that the new kid in town has grown into an honorable legend.

Whenever a political party vowed to combat graft, corruption actually smiled. That is because it knew that only the enemies would be cracked down on and nepotistic cover-ups would still be the case. It knew it would only get stronger.

If Thaksin Shinawatra keeps his promise to return to Thailand next month no matter what, the first real test regarding “lopsided justice” influenced by nepotism will come early. Was he politically persecuted, or did he actually violate anti-corruption rules prescribed by the 1997 “People’s Constitution” and was found guilty when his political party was in power? It’s a divisive question that Pita Limjaroenrat will have to pick an answer, this time not as an opposition MP talking about what should have been done.

Thaksin will be just one of awaiting controversies. Corrupt senior police, dishonest military bigwigs, abusive heads of local administrative bodies and unscrupulous senior officials like those overseeing border trades are all aplenty and they are the main reason why Thailand can never defeat bureaucratic graft.

The likes of the “Red Bull heir” case must be no more. Wealthy parents paying under-the-table money to get children into prestigious schools must be discouraged with tangible measures. Bribes must be eliminated _ throughout society, not just in the trucking community. When political opponents do something good, they must be complimented. If their people are better qualified to do certain jobs, don’t be shy of co-opting them.

Last but not least, Move Forward will need to avoid the “majority trap”. Believe it or not, saying “This is democracy because it’s what the majority wants” can be the least democratic thing to say. True democracy is heeding every lone voice because, who knows, it may prove to be the only sound of reasons.

Why was Prayut’s preaching always ridiculed? It’s because the preaching was not perceived as being accompanied by heeding. Political leaders shape opinions and set agendas, but what has always happened in the Thai political landscape is that agendas are set without enough listening.

Move Forward will face protests, opposing arguments and outright campaigns by non-believers of its policies. How it deals with those will speak volumes on what will prevail between the old politics in which “Saying what I like is freedom of speech” and the new politics in which “I don’t agree with what you say but you have the liberty to say it”.

With big and largely controversial agendas to push for, trust is extra-important. The “intern” is not expected to accomplish all of the above perfectly or overnight. But truth is that they are real, staggering problems facing Thailand, and only by tackling them seriously can the country really move forward.

By Tulsathit Taptim