Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Other factors in Democrats defeat: pundits

A day after Pheu Thai's strong election victory, academics who have been studying the party's red-shirt supporters say there's more to the victory than the Thaksin Shinawatra factor.

Thammasat political scientist Prajak Kongkirati said a good number of voters who cast ballots for Pheu Thai were not fans of Thaksin or Yingluck. Many were disappointed by Abhisit Vejjajiva's handling of the economy and instability caused by repeated interference by the Army and the so-called powers outside the electoral system.

And business people, Prajak said, felt there was a need for political stability and this could not be achieved if forces outside the democratic system kept interfering. So these concerned people quite likely voted for Pheu Thai on Sunday.

"Even some who liked the Democrat Party felt things couldn't go on like this," he said.

Sirote Klampaiboon, a Mahidol University lecturer in politics and human rights, and a close observer of the red-shirts, said although many were fans of Thaksin, people who voted for Pheu Thai, or the Democrats, were more diverse than most might think. He attributed the Democrats' loss to weaknesses of the party and traditional allies like the yellow-shirt People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), who split from the Democrats.

"They failed to create political appeal comparable to Pheu Thai," he said. But he noted that the stability of the Pheu Thai government could not be taken for granted as its opponents were still powerful and definitely a force to be reckoned with.

Self-proclaimed red-shirt political scientist Kengkij Kitirianglarp, from Kasetsart University, told The Nation he wasn't surprised by the Democrats' loss since the party has never won a majority in its long history. But what made things worse for the Democrats was a belief that in the current political and economic crisis, voters felt compelled to make a decisive choice - to support one of the two major parties, as no other parties could offer a coherent policy platform.

Kengkij was concerned that many middle class and well-off people continue to hold on to the "myth" that rural and urban poor voters were dumb and unable to make intelligent electoral choices and the fact this would lead to more social conflict.

He said such thinking may not be accidental but part of a way to justify continued domination by the elite over the rest of the society, especially the working class and rural poor.

"Thailand is not alone. We see examples in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. In the Philippines, farmers fighting the [communist] revolutionary war were portrayed as alien, threatening and uneducated - as naive people who have been fooled [to fight] and do not have independent consciousness of their own. This myth is intentionally constructed," Kengkij said.

Prajak also sees the gap in understanding between the poor and middle class/elite as serious.

"This is the cause of political instability. It's a long-term issue and a challenge to preservation of the democratic system. The middle class and elites have to change their view. Come election time, every voter makes a rational choice. Although logic applied may differ from that of the middle class or elites, it doesn't mean the poor are stupid or irrational. One of the most problematic groups is academics who say northeasterners and northerners are under the sway of money and patronage. It means they don't understand how the rural areas have changed."

Given the growing clout of the poor rural and urban electorates, who constitute the majority of voters, Sirote is more concerned about whether or not those on both ends of the economic and political divides can tolerate the other without resorting to the use of state power of their respective government to crush the other. He reckoned that both sides should try to recognise that difference is not something alien in a democratic society.

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