Opinion: The key to Thailand’s political future is digitization and public ownership

The sacking of Thammanat Prompow and Narumon Pinyosinwat by Prayut Chan-ocha sent shockwaves throughout the country. Although this is hardly the first case of infighting among those in the government and those in Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP), this is arguably the biggest and the most severe, threatening the stability of the entire government. 

Rumors of parliament dissolution to prevent constitutional amendment from a 1-ballot system to a two-ballot system is also circulating.

As the PM struggles to keep PPRP’s MPs under control, the infighting within the party and within the senate is becoming more apparent.

It is a turbulent time for Thai politics.

As parties start their preparations for a possible new general election, it is an opportunity to evaluate the chances of each party and reflect if there is room for a new type of political party entirely. Political parties in the current parliament can be broadly categorized into three different types: media party, local party and personality party.

Media parties – as the term suggests – are built upon mass appeal through the usage of mass media, primarily through TV, radio, newspaper and social media.

Local parties are built upon a patronage network or nepotism (depending on which side of the coin you’re looking at) of powerful local politicians in certain geographic areas. Personality parties are built upon an appeal of a certain politician, usually acting as the party leader or the unofficial power broker. In actuality, every party in the parliament utilises all three tactics, but differs in the usage intensity of each tactic.

The Future Forward Party (FFP) undoubtedly disrupted Thailand’s political setup in the previous election. Any prediction before the 2019 General Election that FFP would gain more than 50 parliamentary seats would have been ridiculed. Yet, against all odds, FFP would go on to win 88 seats through the tactical usage of mass media (primarily through social media) and a charismatic new generation of leaders in Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, Piyabutr Saengkanokkul and Pannika Wanich, before a dubious decision from the Election Commission took away 7 seats from the party and the political futures of several of the party’s most prominent young leaders.

The success of FFP put traditional parties like Bhumjaithai Party and especially the Democrat Party to shame. Not only did the result give rise to a new political player, it changed the Thai political landscape entirely. The importance of social media and its ability to directly engage with party supporters’ was suddenly realized.

While digital platforms like Twitter and Facebook provided the party with the channels to reach an audience larger than ever before, features like commenting and polling provide an additional level of interactivity, involvement and ownership. When the Constitutional Court ruled to dissolve FFP on February 21 of last year, angry cries were passionately echoed throughout the social media and eventually found its way to the streets – an unprecedented public reaction for a brand new party.

The success of FFP reveals the secret recipe to meeting the new political demands of Thai politics: more involvement and more ownership. This could be the perfect opportunity to introduce yet another potentially disruptive political force: a digital party. 

Thailand’s internet adoption is among the highest in the world, which can clearly be seen in the country’s embracement of digital banking, e-commerce and social media.  Countless digital media outlets dedicated to political coverage in Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Clubhouse are becoming ever more popular – Thai Enquirer among them.

Yet despite the public’s growing political interests, the privilege of political decision-making is still solely in the hands of parliamentarians. The only “checks and balances” are the threat of backlash from the party’s supporters and waning popularity if the MP’s decision contradicts the stance of the party’s supporters.

However, a digital party could potentially disrupt Thai politics once more. The success of the Five Star Movement in Italy shook Italian politics even more than FFP did to Thai politics. After all, M5S (as they are known in Italy) managed to form a coalition government in Italy’s 2018 General Election. M5S proves that the concept of digital political parties is possible and is not a wishful abstraction of some digital utopia.

M5S’s most important attribute is its embracement of membership participation. The party’s Italian and European parliamentary candidates were selected through online voting by registered members of the blog site that belongs to Beppe Grillo – the party’s co-founder. The party’s endorsement of direct democracy is a stark contrast to the conventional norms of having party’s electoral candidates selected by the party’s executive committee.

Meanwhile, M5S’s decisions to accept or reject legislative proposals are decided based upon the party members’ collective decision through an application called “Rousseau”. In a sense, M5S’s MPs operate more like a gateway between its members and the parliament than a political class that possesses the authority to make parliamentary decisions on the behalf of the general public. M5S’s adoption of digital direct democracy rewarded them with first place in the Italian’s 2018 General Election. Although the party admittedly struggled once it came to power, the key insight to the importance of ownership and involvement is still valid. 

M5S’s characteristics are similar to “mass member” political parties during the industrial revolution in the West, where members of labor associations and their representatives were the primary driving force. Thailand never experienced such a political phenomenon because “Labor Parties” were systematically dissolved and eliminated throughout the course of history. Digital political party could change that.

Blockchain promises to be the new standard of incorruptible decentralized digital ledger. It has the power to displace the position of political parties as the central authority of political trust in the same manner that is threatening the position of banks as the central authority of financial trust. In the era of insatiable desire for political involvement and ownership, blockchain has the capability to meet those demands with the promise of full transparency.

This will undoubtedly ignite the classical debate of representative democracy versus direct democracy. However, in the era of the great democratic decline, another political disruption that can aid democratic participation and ownership surely cannot be a bad thing. As Thailand approaches yet another political turning point, don’t be surprised if yet another seismic change is added to the turbulent political progression of this country.

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