11 July 2024

Coming from a man considered to be one of the top political thinkers, the idea that the second biggest party in a multiple-party system is traditionally required to fight with the biggest one in forming a government sounds more worrisome. If not more ridiculous, that is.

Even Phumtham Wechayachai, one of the Pheu Thai Party’s most powerful influencers, has pointed out himself that his political camp and Move Forward were not that far apart in terms of election wins. This made the deputy party leader’s assertion that Pheu Thai could have chosen to be a rival government-forming core more bewildering.

No political textbook says Pheu Thai should have, and for good reason. Yet this type of thinking has spread throughout not just Pheu Thai’s highest hierarchy but also a considerable section of its support down to the grass roots.  

There is only one justification for a post-election rivalry between Move Forward and Pheu Thai, and that is if there are irreconcilable ideological differences between both parties. Truth, however, is that Pheu Thai is closer to Move Forward ideologically than to, say, Palang Pracharath. To say otherwise is ignoring what has been happening in Thailand over the past two decades.

Move Forward won over 14 million party-list votes, compared with Pheu Thai’s 10.9 million. It was even closer in constituency elections, with Move Forward gathering a combined 9.6 million votes and Pheu Thai 9.3 million.

Phumtham was right in saying that it was close. But he was wrong in implying that the closeness would justify a rivalry. Here is what he said earlier this week while commenting on the speakership tussle: “As of now, Pheu Thai is the second biggest political party, and what always happened was that the second biggest party would lead a rival core. We don’t do that, because we realise that Thai people want changes.”

Well, “what always happened” is wrong. And it’s even “more wrong” now than in the past because Pheu Thai was considerably more aggressive ideologically than Palang Pracharath and, in the more distant past, the Democrat Party. In other words, it was a lot more understandable historically for Pheu Thai and its closest rivals to be on opposite sides.

This time, it is different. Granted, Pheu Thai wants a higher daily minimum wage but that is negotiable because Move Forward, like every political party, wouldn’t want to upset the labour movement. Pheu Thai promoted the “digital wallet” plan during the election campaign but talks with Move Forward can easily reshape the idea. These potential conflicts are economic, not ideological, thus easier to deal with.

So, unless Pheu Thai says “We like and understand the military and want to keep it an integral part of Thai politics and we will fight tooth and nail against decentralisation”, there is no reason for the second biggest party to walk away from the Pita alliance. True democracy requires the two parties that won a combined 25 million popular votes to work together, not rival each other.

Not only Thais, but most citizens of the world are not sophisticated enough to leave it at that if the party they support is so near and yet so far. The idea that the second biggest party is the “loser” who will need to overthrow the winner is anti-democratic, a big insult to both sets of voters who deserve constructive cooperation and pooling of qualified resources.

But it’s not just that. The wrong idea concerning the first election runner-up promotes fraudulent, unfair, abusive and disruptive politics, because since the winner will “take all”, the “loser” will do everything at any cost to put away the former, and vice versa. Minor mistakes will be overblown, but big ones can be downplayed or overlooked. Nepotism and cronyism will prevail. Public opinions will be manipulated. Political divide can only widen. The media will be drawn into the standoff and forget their duties.

Democracy does not end at the ballot boxes. It’s always a work in progress, constantly requiring noble use of talent and getting rid of rotten apple. But the beginning must be parties that win the most trust from the public being able to work together to serve the interests of those who support them. Unless, of course, there are differences that can never be reconciled. The speakership tussle is much ado about nothing.

A wrong start can lead everyone to an endlessly-wrong path. Pheu Thai always proclaims it champions democracy, and it must champion it the right way.

By Tulsathit Taptim