Former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva says he has no intention of stirring up trouble for Thailand’s military rulers. Since the May 2014 military coup, the veteran politician says he has received calls from junta members asking him to tone down his dissenting views and has occasionally been blocked from meeting his Democrat Party supporters, in line with an imposed ban on political activities.
Abhisit’s party, of course, was instrumental in staging the 2013-14 People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) “Shutdown Bangkok” street protests that paralyzed then-prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s elected government and softened the political ground for the military’s takeover.
Four years on, Abhisit says it was never his Democrat Party’s intention to facilitate the democracy-suspending putsch, though his party has since fragmented on pro- and anti-military lines, resulting in the formation of the new breakaway pro-military Action Coalition for Thailand Party.
The ex-premier is now striving to recapture the democratic high ground, suggesting in an interview that his party has been miscast by opponents as “conservative” and “illiberal”, and is actually the best “progressive” choice to restore good governance and tackle economic inequality he claims has worsened since the coup.
While Abhisit tells Asia Times he is skeptical the junta will stick to its latest roadmap for holding elections by May 2019, he is also doubtful that whenever polls are held they can be free and fair so long as the military is an interested party rather than impartial referee in the process.
In a wide-ranging interview with Asia Times’ Shawn W. Crispin at the Democrat Party’s largely dormant Bangkok headquarters, Abhisit outlined his hopes and fears for the future of Thai democracy.
Asia Times: Do you believe the country is finally back on track for new elections by May 2019 or do you anticipate more delays?
Abhisit: No I don’t, no I don’t. The fact is that there continues to be an air of uncertainty in the minds of people despite the many reassurances of the [election] roadmap. You can still see in opinion polls that people express doubts about what might happen.
So that suggests a lack of credibility and that’s easy to understand given the fact the roadmap has been changed, delayed, postponed for many times.
Asia Times: What is your broad assessment of the last four years of military rule? What has Prayut got right and what has he got wrong?
Abhisit: I think for a majority of Thai people the initial phase was a welcome break from the chaos and problems. So even until today I think Prayut gets credit for restoring order and allowing people to get on with their lives rather than being caught up in the never-ending cycle of street protests.
But at the same time I think people had hoped if there was going to be a break in democracy that there would be ways in which that systems would be reformed and we can have strong foundations to move forward.
Four years on, I think you would find very, very few people who believe that the system has in any way been fixed or improved. So in that sense, from the point of view of issues like corruption or political conflicts, you’d be hard-pressed to find people who can express confidence that we have made any real progress in solving those problems.
Asia Times: Do you think Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha and his military government are popular?
Abhisit: I don’t think people are happy with the government’s achievements, at all. But there are some people who like Prayut because of his style, or because of the way he has been able to basically discredit politicians.
You see that all over the world. So he has a group of supporters who basically dislike politicians. But overall, the thing about populists and many authoritarians is they never say they are politicians.
Asia Times: Local media reports claim the junta’s proxy Palang Pracharat Party is poaching wholesale your party members. How many MPs have you lost to defections?
Abhisit: None, yet. They’ve been able to attract some of our people but not necessarily MPs in the last election. And so far I don’t know that any of our MPs will be running in the next election under their banner. But I don’t think they’ve stopped trying.
Asia Times: What are your thoughts on the military’s presumed proxy party and apparent entry into democratic politics?
Abhisit: My criticism about all this is not about whether we lose people or not. But it’s a bit ironic you have a set of people who have stated for the last four years that they are here to change politics for the better and yet now we have a real possibility that to carry on being in power they are willing to do all the things that they said they were going to get rid of.
And it doesn’t help to reinforce this impression among the people that politics is about interests of politicians, manipulations, dealings and with the people being left out of the equation. For me, if we want to get Thai politics and democracy on track, the biggest thing you need to do is restore faith in the system…And so resorting to the old ways is doing a big disservice.
Asia Times: The local press is advancing a narrative that your party and traditional rival Peua Thai Party are on the verge of collapse due to mass defections. True or false?
Abhisit: I don’t see it that way. Ultimately, I think it will boil down to how people see the various blocs or groups of parties will serve them. I’m confident that the conservative, bureaucratic, centralized approach of the current government is certainly not going to be what the Thai people will believe can be their future.
It’s reflected in the [military government’s] poor handling of the economy and I guess the frustration people have about the restrictions on their freedom, political and economic. So I don’t believe this new bloc, despite luring people because they have state power now, is something that can convince people at the ballot box.
Asia Times: Do you think the Democrats have become more or less popular since the coup?
Abhisit: It’s hard to tell. Because in situations like this you do polls and in so many the biggest [respondent] bloc is ‘I don’t know.’ For them the choices are unclear. As I mentioned there are parties that will form around the current regime, and they will be seen as a conservative, bureaucratic, centralized bloc.
And then there is Peua Thai, still popular in the eyes of the people, a strong record on the economy, but of course also being seen as corrupt and destabilizing in their agenda, particularly if they cannot step out of the shadows of the Shinawatra family.
And then there is us. We know that we have a core of supporters but we have to work that much harder to reach out to the neutrals and the new generation.
Part of the problem for us has been that our fight with the [ex-premier] Thaksin [Shinawatra] parties has cast us into a different role, which I don’t think really truly reflects our values…I hope that people will see more clearly that we are of the liberal democratic tradition.
Asia Times: Do you think the next election will be a de facto referendum between those who support and oppose military rule?
Abhisit: Or those who support or oppose Thaksin’s people? My hope is that it will be neither. My hope is that we would decide to step out of this kind of politics being centered around a person or group of persons.
My hope is that Thai people will see the election as an opportunity to step out of these frames and take the country forward. Because I don’t see how elections can continue to be framed like that if we’re going to get out of the cycle we’ve been in for the last decade.
Asia Times: Will the Democrats represent a clear anti-junta vote?
Abhisit: Well, we’re representing a different alternative from both the military and from Peua Thai. And we think Thailand should have these choices and people should see what’s best for them in the future.
Asia Times: Why should Thai voters select you over Prayut as next national leader?
Abhisit: Well, we have clear differences in policies. Number one, we believe in democracy, number two we believe in decentralization, number three we believe we need a new paradigm in terms of economic management.
The structure of the economy, like in many other countries, now has created huge degrees of inequality that simply can’t be addressed if policymakers are using the old paradigm.
I mean the clearest illustration is the current government is so happy that GDP will likely exceed 4% this year. But that number means almost nothing to 80%-90% of the people. Because of the degree of inequality now aggregate numbers mean so little.
Asia Times: So economic inequality has grown since the coup?
Abhisit: It has grown steadily over the years and I think during the coup [government] as well. Because there was a massive shock to the agriculture sector when they discontinued the [Yingluck government’s] rice pledging scheme, which was reasonable.
But what’s not reasonable is they never found an alternative or a substitute for it, whereas we would certainly implement income subsidies as what I see as a step towards eventually basic income guarantees that so many countries are talking about as a form of universal basic income.
Asia Times: How specifically has the junta fumbled the economy?
Abhisit: Much of their policy is dominated by big business, which has done well over the last four years, and failed to appreciate the need to address the fairness dimension. Given also the importance of networks now means that there are more and more natural monopolies and we have no policy to address that at all.
When you make a decision on projects, infrastructure or economic zones, or decisions to open up trade, or whatever, you have to assess the impact on [wealth] distribution. You can’t just say this is going to increase investment and growth by so and so amount and hope that it trickles down.
Asia Times: In a post-election kingmaker role, would the Democrats be more apt to form a coalition with Peua Thai or Palang Pracharat?
Abhisit: That’s not our objective, our objective is to come first. But it depends on how they position themselves. I don’t see a value in working in government with a party that does not believe in our values.
So for Peua Thai, if they remain trapped in the shadows of the Shinawatra family, I can’t see how we would work with them. At the same time, if we’re going to participate in the next government that runs the country the way things are now, that’s also not for us.
Asia Times: You could be in a very lonely position then.
Abhisit: Well, if we need to be in the opposition, then we’ll be in the opposition. The party is here to stay: it’s not here just for the next elections or to form the next government.
Asia Times: Do you think Thais still see a vote for Peua Thai as a de facto vote for Thaksin and if so is that a winning election strategy?
Abhisit: There’s Thaksin the man, and there’s Thaksin the brand. And the strength of the brand is still there and that is a result of some of their successful policies in the past. That’s their strength.
Unfortunately, it comes with a package with Thaksin the man, which means there will always be questions about amnesty, corruption, and abuse of power that comes with Thaksin-led and Thaksin-backed governments. I guess it just depends on whether their supporters feel the brand or the man is going to be dominant.
Asia Times: What lessons has your party learned since the coup?
Abhisit: Well, I hope we’ve all learned lessons. What we’ve learned is we have to take Thai politics out of being centered on persons, and groups of persons and conflicts. We have got to try to make politics about how people will be served, through policies, through values and ideologies.
For that you have to both have a party that is truly democratic with a small “d” that belongs to people, that relates to people, and that not only sees their task as just managing policies but also demonstrating how to govern according to democratic principles and values.
So I hope Peua Thai learns that lesson as well. And if we both learn those lessons then maybe we can move out of the previous cycle of conflicts. At the same time, I also hope the bloc that supports the current regime also recognizes that their ways of running the country and economy are not going to serve the country well in the future.
Asia Times: Do you think in hindsight the PDRC’s street action against Yingluck was a mistake?
Abhisit: I don’t think it’s a question of whether it was a mistake. I think people that were out there on the streets had a very clear rationale and reason for being out there. I don’t believe that the majority of them wanted to see a coup.
Before the coup, I made my views known very clearly that I did not want a coup. And up until the last ten minutes before the coup I was trying to convince the Peua Thai party that they had to do something to avoid a coup. But you can’t just say the coup is a result of one group or another. We are all there to bear responsibilities.
Asia Times: Do you think the Democrats have been tainted by perceptions that your backed PDRC protests paved the way for the military’s takeover and suspension of democracy?
Abhisit: Well, I tried to make ourselves very clear before the coup that wasn’t our aim. But, you know, our opponents will certainly try to lump us with the military because they want people to see them as champions of democracy.
But I think you should take the whole perspective and see that the protests couldn’t have happened if Peua Thai weren’t so keen to serve Thaksin’s family’s interests.
Asia Times: So in retrospect, what was worse: a Yingluck-led government that returned Thaksin to Thailand via an amnesty or the military’s takeover and suspension of democracy?
Abhisit: The Democrats are here to say we deserve better than both.
Asia Times: If in power, would you prioritize scrutinizing the junta’s record and if so what projects, policies, or procurements in particular?
Abhisit: I would say our priorities would be to get on with reviving the economy, of fixing our education system, make sure there is good governance. But any projects or policies that are corrupt would need to be investigated.
Asia Times: How do you respond to criticism that you should hand over the party’s reins to a new leader after losing consecutive elections to Thaksin-aligned parties?
Abhisit: Well, every time we’ve lost elections I’ve resigned and allowed members to pick their leader. They’ve re-elected me.
For the upcoming elections, what we’ll do differently is we plan to have a party leader election where all members can participate, not just the party conference. So we hope to have hundreds of thousands to vote for the next party leader.
This party is not like any other party in Thailand, which is to say I don’t own the party. I can only be here if party members want me to be.
Asia Times: Is there a risk that the junta backtracks on its commitment to restoring democracy as the international pressure from the US and EU that was previously there eases?
Abhisit: I think they need to be worried more about the internal pressure, which has grown rapidly in the last couple of years. The risk to me is not about elections being delayed, the risk for me is that if they are delayed for much longer you’re looking at a possible scenario of more instability.
Asia Times: How could that instability or popular frustration manifest under current political restrictions?
Abhisit: It’s hard to predict, but it’s never good to have most of the population unhappy and frustrated without being able to express their voice.
Asia Times: So do Thais really yearn for a return to democracy or is there a tacit acceptance of military rule if the economy is sufficiently growing?
Abhisit: The government is satisfied with the economy, the people are not. In fact you’re probably getting to a situation where the people are getting more frustrated, asking why are you so happy about this when they’re not feeling the benefits at all.
I think the trade-off wouldn’t be about the economy but all the instability. I think we’re in a situation where people really do expect that they should have the right to go to vote and choose a future for themselves.
Although, of course, they continue to be anxious that we won’t get back to the old ways before the coup either.