Political parties run by people, not patriarchs

Political parties run by people, not patriarchs
Thailand's former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva

In the wake of three consecutive election defeats, former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva announced at the weekend that if he fails to guide the Democrat Party to victory in the next general election, he will step down as leader.

Abhisit said he had no interest in being opposition leader for a fourth time.

A few days later, former premier Thaksin Shinawatra told Reuters there was no plan for his son Panthongtae to lead the Pheu Thai Party, whose government was ousted by a military coup in May last year. Thaksin's political parties have won every general election since 2001.

In Thailand it is common practice for a political "patriarch" to pass on key posts in his party to family members. In this way, control over the party is kept in the hands of a small group of people, leaving ordinary members little or no say in its direction.

Unlike many of their counterparts in the developed world, Thai political parties are not democratic institutions in which ordinary members are given a say on policy affairs or strategy.

Most parties here are still controlled by a small clique of powerful politicians and wealthy financiers who stand to benefit when the party gets into government. Armed with wealth and connections, some families have managed to gain such influence that they regard themselves as the rightful "owners" of their party.

Observers have compared such parties to "private companies" run as businesses by their "executive-owners".

The rank-and-file membership is just something that the management brandishes to boast how "popular" their party is. When it comes to important decisions about the party's future, such as who is going to be the next leader, the ordinary members are quickly brushed aside. In most Thai political parties, such decisions are made by the small cabal of people (or the extended family) that runs the show.

It is they who will discuss candidates for party leader, before the choice is made by the party's ruling patriarch - who may hold the reins of power even if he no longer holds any executive post in the party.

With a small group of people at the helm, decisions made by Thai political parties naturally reflect the interests of the few rather than those of the mass of ordinary members. So, while parties' like to boast their mass membership as proof they represent public interests, the reality is that the "ordinary folk" get little or no say.

One way to strengthen democracy in Thailand would be to give ordinary members a greater opportunity to become party executives and make decisions about policy direction. Such roles should not be the preserve of rich donors or those close to the party's patriarch.

There is still a long way to go before Thailand gets a "people's party" worthy of the name. But if that time does arrive, we will have better hopes of enjoying a genuinely representative "people's politics" - and a democratic system that can't easily be hijacked by vested interests.

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