Turning policy-making on its head, a new party struggles with legal hurdles

KHON KAEN – Despite the military junta’s prolonged ban on political activity, a new party has launched a muted campaign in the Northeast. Touring the region to collect policy ideas, the Commoner Party seeks to build a popular program ahead of the elections. But strict new rules under the 2017 constitution cast doubt over their chances of ever entering the race.

Founded by activists and NGOs, the Commoner Party has vowed to boost people’s participation in politics and end the monopoly on policy-making that party elites, tycoons, and academics have held for so long. After having received conditional approval by the Election Commission in May, the party hopes to be a direct conduit between people and the power-centers of government.

But as the new grassroots party is taking first steps to attract voters, it struggles to navigate a maze of hurdles set up by the junta’s Political Party Act.

Less is more: just 15 people participated in the roundtable discussion in Khon Kaen in June.

Sourcing solutions from the people

On June 1, the Commoner Party hosted a gathering at a temple in Khon Kaen city, the first of many events planned across the country. Party leaders want to give citizens and local communities a platform to directly voice their ideas, concerns, and needs. The party plans to turn the views expressed in each gathering into public policy.

A key tenet of the Commoner Party is that government policy should address the needs of society at large, and not just the interests of a select few.

“We believe that party policy should truly represent the needs of our brothers and sisters in each part [of Thailand]” said Kittichai Ngamchaipisit, one of the party co-founders. “Policy shouldn’t only be coming from experts, academics, government officials, or big business, as it has to date.”

The gathering brought together representatives from social justice groups in Khon Kaen, including the Alternative Farming Network, the Khon Kaen chapter of Disabilities Thailand (DTH), the Nong Song Hong branch of the Community Organizations Development Institute (CODI), and a canal-side community from the city’s Phralab sub-district.

The campaign’s pilot phase is running from June to August, after which the party will summarize the ideas into policies for public review.

The second phase, from November 2018 to January 2019, involves presenting the draft from phase one for wider review. The results will then be turned into an official political mandate with the help of academics and policy experts working with the party.

Commoner Party co-founder Kittichai Ngamchaipisit facilitated the discussion in the grounds of Wat Wutharam temple. Freely open to the public, temples have traditionally played host to community parleys.

Keeping it casual

The canvassing team believes that keeping the gatherings intimate is crucial. “We are deliberately keeping it small and informal so that people will feel comfortable in speaking out” says Mr. Kittichai. Large, formal meetings in hotels would be counterproductive, he argues.

“We’re not going to tell them that we will solve all of their problems. Instead we will listen to their problems and give them a platform to propose their own solutions,” Mr. Kittichai said.

This strategy stems from the assumption that citizens can be just as capable as government officials, experts, and academics are of understanding and addressing society’s problems.

During a group visualization activity, participants were asked to draw what they want to see in Thai society.

Bottom-up policy making should be the norm

Jidapa Chiablaem, who works at the National Health Security Office in Khon Kaen to advocate for the rights of HIV patients, said she was very excited to attend this event. It was the first time she had ever discussed problems and solutions directly with a political party.

“I think this is great. All political parties should be forming their policies [directly from the needs and wants of the people], as the Commoner Party is doing”, Ms. Jidapa urged.

At the event Ms. Jidapa proposed a single, universal, and unconditional health coverage scheme to replace the current system which offers differing levels of coverage and cost defrayment to ordinary people and government officials.

“I believe that everyone, regardless of their profession or role in society, deserves an equal standard of health care that is free at the point of use,” she explained.

Creating policy directly from grassroots input should be done by all parties, says Arunee Santhitiwanich, a lecturer at Ubon Ratchathani University’s Faculty of Political Science. Policy-making ought to be a participatory activity between all citizens, and not just the preserve of party elites.

The down-to-earth and informal atmosphere of the Commoner Party’s gatherings should help people accustomed to feeling disenfranchised to come forward with their grievances and opinions, she observed.

“Communicating their views directly to a political party, will help them to feel empowered and heard.” Ms. Arunee said. “Contributing directly to policy-making will do wonders for their sense of agency.”

But any political party that deploys this strategy will face the test of distilling the vast input into a coherent set of policies, Ms. Arunee cautioned. Failing this test is likely to dissipate the goodwill and support gained from the initial exercise.

The gathering was low-budget and low-tech. A party member kept minutes by hand as the participants spoke without the aid of microphones.

The million baht question

The 2017 constitution requires political parties to have one million baht in registered capital. Raising this fund from the party’s first 500 members by November is the single biggest challenge facing the party. Failure to do so will result in automatic dissolution of the party.

“This is a huge problem for us. Many of our members are farmers, small-scale merchants, or are otherwise self-employed”, Mr. Kittichai pointed out. “Their incomes are somewhat unpredictable.”

Having this requirement as the very first hurdle in the creation of a political party is hardly conducive to democracy, Mr. Kittichai argues.

Ms. Arunee also expressed concern about the requirement for new political parties to raise one million baht from members, with contributions strictly limited to 1,000 to 50,000 baht each. This presents a very real barrier for a party with low-income membership.

“The Commoner Party members tend to be people with low and unstable income. 1000 baht for them is equal to about three day’s wages.” Ms. Arunee said.  “Spending that much could put them in financial dire straits for an entire week.”

One possible solution is to allow political parties to collect their initial funding from low-income members in installments of 200 – 300 baht per month.

But being funded directly by the membership is not without its benefits. Ms. Arunee pointed out that party members who have contributed funds for the registration and running of the party are likely to feel a strong sense of ownership. They are also more likely to hold the party representatives standing for election accountable to party policy.

Ms. Arunee considers the Commoner Party’s policy-forming strategy to be a good example for other parties to follow.

Turning political parties into government agencies

After passing the hurdle of raising one million baht in registration funds, the Commoner Party will be entitled to cash grants from the Election Commission. But Ms. Arunee warns that these grants come with strings attached. The grantee political parties must comply with strict rules in order to be eligible for grants.

The funds may only be used for prescribed activities, such as to educate the population about democracy, as defined by the Election Commission. Using these grants to meet general operating costs is forbidden.

The regulations also require political parties to maintain daily cash-flow accounts, along with separate accounts for party assets and liabilities, all professionally audited.

“These regulations clearly bear the mark of government agencies accustomed to complex financial controls” Ms. Arunee notes. “But these byzantine regulations may force lean political parties to focus disproportionately on compliance instead of political campaigning”.

It is unnatural for political parties to behave like government agencies, because political parties and government agencies don’t have the same objectives. Government agencies exist to regulate and enforce compliance, and must therefore prioritize administrative and financial accountable, Ms. Arunee argued.

“Political parties exist to channel the will of the people into government,” Ms. Arunee argued. “ That’s why they must be administratively nimble and responsive.”