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Should compromise decide the fate of Thailand’s fledgling democratic coalition?

Move Forward Party’s electoral breakthrough marks the beginning of a rocky transition to democratic politics after nearly a decade of militarized rule. Following its stunning transformation into the largest political party by number of both electoral votes and parliamentary seats, its next immediate hurdle is securing enough votes in parliament for its leader Pita Limjaroenrat to become prime minister from MPs not conventionally from the ‘pro-democracy’ block. This involves appealing to the 250-undemocratically-appointed senators and inviting 2 MPs from the controversial Chart Pattana Kla Party, not to mention the subsequently withdrawn decision to invite 2 MPs from the controversial Chart Pattana Kla Party to join the coalition government it hopes to set up in the coming weeks.

Across social media and beyond, Move Forward’s supporters remain divided over how far the party should be willing to compromise its political stance to win the favour of ostensibly undemocratic actors. This anti-climactic quandary proves to be a critical juncture not only for the party’s ability to live up to its voters’ expectations but also for the country’s broader struggle with the many undemocratic roadblocks that lie ahead.

Diehard proponents of Move Forward, including at least one prominent party figure, Wirot Lakkhanaadisorn, have expressed scepticism towards initiating any negotiations with undemocratic opponents. Some even go as far as preferring to see Move Forward continue its role as an opposition party rather than tolerate any advances towards these opponents. If anything, the ideological nature of Thai oppositional politics shows that when the very legitimacy of the parties to a compromise is the source of dispute, it is difficult for the parties to mutually envisage, let alone treat, one another as equals in the politically relevant sense of the term.

Conversely, there are some who believe that making compromises in certain, especially dire, situations is a necessary evil. Negotiating with those whom we morally detest may not be the morally right thing to do but doing so for strategic reasons is just how politics operates. If we take seriously what politics is, perhaps our decisions in politics ought to be constrained not merely by idealizations and abstractions of a moral kind but also by the concrete circumstances of politics. Inevitable disagreement and the need for compromise doubly constitute a concrete circumstance of politics.

By widening the circle of negotiation to include factions from the non-democratic block, the challenge that Move Forward faces is somewhat comparable to the one that awaited the British Conservative Party’s failure to attain a parliamentary majority in the general election of 2010. The eventual decision to partner with the Liberal Democrats proved problematic not because one or the other was undemocratic to begin with, but because both were perceived as betraying their respective electoral mandates.

To be sure, many of Move Forward’s supporters do criticize the party on precisely these grounds. But as leading democratic theorist Richard Bellamy pointed out following the indecisive British election, such a line of criticism can somewhat be nullified if it can be shown that the obligation to compromise forms part of the ethos of democracy—compromise done out of respect for one another as democratic interlocutors. The problem rather is with whom the compromise is being made, not the inability or unwillingness to live up to voter confidence.

If this is correct, the real question for Move Forward and its supporters is if or when it will be permissible to compromise with undemocratic actors. Can the ‘Forward momentum’ be sustained through the building of a coalition government around a series of compromises?

Of course, there is every reason to avoid the kind of concessions Neville Chamberlain made to Adolf Hitler to prevent the outbreak of another world war. Allowing Hitler to seize Sudetenland in exchange for peace was all for nought since Hitler knew he had the resources to launch a full-scale continental conquest anyway. Hitler’s ulterior motive was never merely the annexation of German-speaking territories. Given Hitler’s confidence in Germany’s renewed strength, it was only a matter of time before he would send Germany off to combat the other great powers. Hence, why not exploit his opponents’ miscalculations and make as many unopposed localized incursions as he still could?

So is appeasing the senators the same as appeasing Hitler? If renouncing any intentions to reform the monarchy is necessary to gain minimal support from the senators, would this be too high a price for Move Forward to pay?

First of all, the coalition’s foe is somewhat less ‘armed’ than Chamberlain’s. Thanks to the elections the lower house is now virtually controlled by the coalition. The balance of power here is not comparable to that of the Axis and Allies of pre-war Europe. It might even be argued that the pro-junta forces of contemporary Thailand are now on the defensive.

Secondly, granted that monarchical reform is an integral part of democratization, a compromise agreement will require that the democratizers abandon the optimal route in order to reach a mutually acceptable solution. When neither side can be rationally induced to amend their stance on substantive matters, both will be in for a long game with multiple battles to be waged and compromises to be struck. This is why skilful political manoeuvring by the pragmatic democratic realist will prove more invaluable in the struggles to come than the noble die-hardism of the wide-eyed democratic idealist.

Alongside the conflicts of interest and squabbles for power by rival political families, politics indubitably is a battleground for competing ideological outlooks. And it is perfectly plausible that the different values people hold may prove irreconcilable. So it does not seem much of a stretch to contend that the meaning and value of compromise should vary from one political circumstance to another. Under extreme circumstances, where options are severely limited, would it not be permissible or even justified then to make otherwise unacceptable compromises for the sake of democracy? If this is what one truly thinks and does, can it be said that in a sense one is not making any real concessions? Perhaps the desideratum of compromise in contexts where one’s interlocutor is undemocratic is neither peace, stability nor even fairness, but conceding as little as possible to get the closest approximation of a democratic outcome.

To complicate things, even within the pro-democracy coalition not all members can agree that same-sex marriage is a universal right. Agreement on a substantive conception of democracy with regards to gender equality is far from unanimous. The decision to draft an advance MOU that includes the legalization of same-sex marriage foreshadows a major fault line between the broadly secular Move Forward and the staunchly Islamic Prachachat Party. Failure to settle disagreements of such kind may threaten to destabilize the coalition, an outcome that anti-junta factions have worked so hard to set in motion.

Consider a textbook example from the early civil rights legislation in the United States. Then senate majority leader Lyndon B. Johnson managed to convince deep south senators to accept the enforcement of civil rights laws, provided that liberal senators’ preference of strong federal enforcement be relegated to a more symbolic provision. Compromise cut deeply for both sides here. According to American political philosopher Henry Richardson, this was possible because the American ideals of freedom, equality and mutual respect for autonomy were broad enough to serve as the basis for 'a vague conception of the public good that is widely shared in well-ordered democracies, even pluralist ones'.

It would be foolish to ignore how the deep fault lines of pluralism cut across most democratic arrangements. If Move Forward wants Pita to become the 30th prime minister of Thailand, its chances of success hinge on its ability to attune itself to the constraints of real-world politics.

Pita will need to show that under his leadership existing political divisions are not to be overlooked in the name of an imaginary consensus. His party will need to understand the conditions and requirements of the MPs who it wishes to appeal to for support. Moreover, it must be capable of specifying what provisions are to be included in the MOU such that the democratic coalition can be rendered both appealing to a wide range of prospective interlocutors on one hand and minimally democratic in spirit on another.

Despite the old saying, 'Compromise is odious to passionate natures because it seems a surrender; and to intellectual natures because it seems a confusion', it is advisable to not dismiss how a more nuanced taxonomy of compromise can help the coalition rise above the vicissitudes of Thai politics.

Dulyaphab Chaturongkul is a lecturer in political theory at the Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University.


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