Pheu Thai’s policies have been dismissed as ‘populism’, but elements of them can more properly be categorized as belonging to ‘Socialism of the 21st Century’, a movement embraced by Latin American leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and one with its own Wikipedia page for those interested.
Socialism of the 21st Century aims to address both the failures of free market capitalism and of socialism. It prioritises needs seen as urgent in terms of social justice and redistributive justice, including poverty, hunger, economic exploitation and the lack of a participative democratic system. However, unlike Pheu Thai, Socialism of the 21st Century solidly embraces a socialist economic system based on large-scale property and wealth redistribution and therefore tends to be anti-corporatist as well as anti-imperialistic and anti-US.
With absolute poverty in Thailand down to under 8%, thanks in part to Thaksinomics, the question is whether Pheu Thai needs a more nuanced set of policies as part of a reform process towards finding a core ideology that can escape the label of ‘populism’. One possible approach is that a reformed Pheu Thai could, in some form, indeed become a ‘Socialist’ party. ‘Socialist’ is equated with‘communist’ by many Americans and is therefore seen negatively. However, most European democracies include a form of socialist party, and for example, the French Socialist Party currently controls France.
So, Pheu Thai could evolve into a Socialist or 'Social Democrat' party (such as the one currently leading a controlling coalition in Austria). A Social Democrat party supports both a free market and taxation to support a welfare state. Examples of countries that have developed along the lines of social democracies include the Nordic Model countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), which lead the world in equality through a highly progressive taxation system and a well-developed welfare state.
Or, Pheu Thai could evolve into a true Democratic Socialist party similar to those of Latin America outlined in the introduction, more in favor of wealth redistribution, property redistribution and a socialist command economy. However, such a ‘Hard Left’ position would be too radical for the great majority of voters in Thailand.
This is despite the fact that Thailand does have a quasi-command economy with five year plans and a heavily centralized bureaucracy, two potential (not necessarily good) components of Democratic Socialism. So, perhaps elements of Democratic Socialism could exist within a broader Social Democrat ideology.
In terms of macro-economics then, a reformed Pheu Thai would continue Thailand’s quasi-command economy. Solving the rice problem would be a priority, and while subsidizing the cost of production is possible, the ‘Green’ element common to most Social Democracy ideology would likely continue to try to move Thailand away from mono-cropping through supporting more sugar cane production, for example. As such, it could also involve both subsidization of costs and price controls in several agricultural industries.
As Social Democrat parties also promote the environment, this would mean a new Minerals Law for Thailand that sees the legal prevention of environmental destruction as just as important as compensation or remedial action. It would also imply toughening up the Environmental Health Impact Assessment system and would also probably subsidize solar. Taking some of these steps may be viewed suspiciously by Pheu Thai’s corporate backers and would be a real test of whether the Pheu Thai Party could really reform along Social Democrat lines.
Pheu Thai’s links to industry could also pose obstacles to it embracing Social Democrat principles in the workplace, as following such ideology would lead to both more unions and more politically active unionization beyond public sector unions, such as that of EGAT, and into private companies. This would aim to improve worker-friendly accident/health legislation, sick pay and so on. The basic question then is can the party that introduced the current minimum wage scheme additionally embrace unionization?
Social Democrat parties can also support decentralization, including regional decentralization to achieve greater democratic participation in public decision making through either participative or deliberative democracy. This may then generate regional parties, such as the existing Matubhum Party. A new Decentralization Act would be required in order to slim down state agencies responsible for decentralization and to transfer more fiscal responsibility to the provinces/regions. Again, Pheu Thai would run up against vested bureaucratic interests, the belief that ‘Thainess’ means unity without diversity, and elements within its own party that see elections as a ‘winner takes all’ model.
A more progressive taxation system, abolishing personal income tax exceptions and instituting property taxes would be a priority for a Social Democracy party. Again, property taxes would find the party running up against opposition from the 1% from both sides of the political spectrum.
A Social Democracy party would also use income inequality and quality of living indicators, such as wellbeing, to develop Thailand’s welfare state, which already has a free health system, some provision for the elderly and a free education system for all grades.
A Social Democracy outlook on developing this existing welfare state would see a more equal education system promoting entrepreneurial activity, i.e., improving equality of opportunity through more investment in schools in the regions, more equipment for their chemistry and physics labs, better libraries, and educational philosophies that prioritize human rights education and social problem solving. The Left is particularly strong in these areas, with both critical pedagogy and community-based research willing and able to look into injustices along race and class lines and develop actions and policies to address them.
As for justice, a reformed Pheu Thai following a Social Democracy model would introduce change along the lines of social justice. This would include more funding for the justice system to eliminate Thailand’s backlog of cases, more transparency in terms of judgement making to establish a rational humanist aspect to Thailand’s existing case law, and a whole new set of ideological components to address the cultural rights of racial minorities such as the Thai Lao via new legislation including a National Language Policy.
The reform of Pheu Thai cannot be undertaken without the corresponding reform of the Democrat Party. If the Democrat and Pheu Thai Parties reform themselves, we might be able to see, though only through a glass, darkly, the emergence of Thailand's dream: a stable political system where all sides can clearly see each other’s ideological positions and policies.
And though the parties may not like their differences, this does not matter provided there is basic respect and a normalization of Thai politics that could provide opportunities for a democratic, parliamentary dialogue to take Thailand into the 21st Century.
John Draper is Project Officer of the Isan Culture Maintenance and Revitalisation Programme at College of Local Administration, Khon Kaen University. His opinion proposed for reforming the Democratic Party can find in Bangkok Post.