On Knife’s Edge: Elections and Democracy in Thailand

Anti-government protesters, Bangkok, December 2013 Thana Thaweeskulchai/flickr

Gripped by a deadly crisis, with grenades exploding in the streets of Bangkok, the people and politicians of Thailand once again find themselves back in the global media headlines. Unfortunately, much of the coverage is sexed-up and superficial, which is normally what happens when outsider journalists buzz in and out of a country (‘clusterfuck’, as they say), hastily file their reports, then move on, to the next episode of breaking news, wherever it is happening. Fellow journalists elsewhere on the planet predictably join the chorus. Perched at their desks, working to tight deadlines, they blindly repeat what’s just been said. The resulting coverage becomes fully cosmetic: it shuns the unfamiliar, ignores the cutting-edge qualities of the unfolding drama, misjudges its larger historical significance. As the case of Thailand shows, the overall result is paradoxical: news kills its own novelty.

The life-and-death events gripping Thailand deserve much more careful treatment. So here are a few brief thoughts that readers might find useful when trying to figure out the wider global significance of this vexed and vicious moment in Thai politics.

First: Thailand’s adventures with democracy during the past generation are not backwater developments. They are of global relevance. They’re part of a bigger historical trend in which, despite many ups and downs, the spirit, language and institutions of democracy have made their mark in virtually every part of the Asia and Pacific region, on a scale never before witnessed. Some Western scholars say democratisation in the region brings it ever closer to ‘the Anglo-American model of two party democracy‘. This is wrong. It’s not just that the so-called Washminster model of ‘liberal’ parliamentary democracy has largely failed to take root in the region. The much more interesting fact is that the Asia and Pacific world, Thailand included, is making its mark and taking its revenge on Western democratic ideals and practices. The Thai dalliance with democracy is changing its imaginary homelands, doing new things to democracy, in defiance of the textbooks.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, December 2013 @PouYingluck

Second: struggles over the meaning of democracy are absolutely central to the unfinished political drama. This is not a conflict about the ‘consolidation’ of democracy. In Thailand, nobody is lowering the flag of democracy. Everybody believes in its dark energy. The chief target of the present protests, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, says she’s ‘protecting democracy’, and won’t therefore resign. It’s why she has called for fresh elections, scheduled for early February. ‘Democracy belongs to the entire Thai people’, she tweets. Her main opponent, self-styled leader of the protests, Suthep Thaugsuban, agrees. Fancying himself the saviour of democracy, perhaps even its brave martyr, he likes to remind huge crowds of a key clause in the Thai constitution: ‘the highest power is the sovereign power of the people’.

Lip service paid to ‘the people’ – said by textbooks to be the source of sovereign authority in a democracy - shows why Thailand now resembles a tragi-comic play about the follies of democratic appeals to a fictional ‘sovereign people’. For the truth is that some Thai people, millions of them living in the north and north-eastern parts of the country, love the government and don’t mind the fact that this is a country that has two prime ministers. They adore Yingluck Shinawatra and praise her multi-billionaire brother for his simple messages and head-banging efforts to empower the poor, for instance through affordable universal health care. They’re big fans of populist democracy.

Their opponents, middle class supporters of the Democratic Party led by Abhisit Vejjajiva, cry foul. They fancy a form of royalist bourgeois democracy. Feeling threatened by the rise of the uneducated poor, they express support for the reigning monarchy of King Bhumibol, state bureaucrats and the armed forces. They like it when judges from the Constitutional Court point out that if a majority ‘uses its power arbitrarily and suppresses the minority without listening to reason, this makes the majority lose its legitimacy’. These middle-class democrats understandably complain about the toxic effects of big money in politics, vote buying, media manipulation and the tyranny of the majority. They demand an end to psephocracy and the ‘Thaksin regime’ and its replacement by a form of government guided by an appointed ‘People’s Council’.

Anti-government, pro-democracy banner, Bangkok, January 2014 macsf/flickr

Third: fresh elections cannot resolve this fundamental disagreement about the meaning of democracy. The roots of modern electoral democracy are traceable to civil war situations in old Europe, where liberty of the press, political parties and periodic elections were designed as safety-valve peace formulae. The Thai dynamic is exactly the opposite. Elections stir up great trouble. They bring to the boil the tempers of millions of citizens. They inadvertently raise, but do not answer, spooky questions: can democracy still flourish when elections are moved more to the margins of people’s lives? Can citizens more effectively checkmate the arbitrary power of business and government using different (‘monitory’) democratic methods? Is post-electoral democracy possible?

Fourth: the case of Thailand casts doubt not only on the orthodox political science claim that periodic elections must be the beating heart of democracy, and that what is therefore now needed in Thailand is for all sides to embrace the principles of ‘electoral integrity’. No such agreement will be forthcoming. Significant sections of the Thai citizenry, the most highly educated and politically sophisticated, as it happens, think that winner-take-all, majority-rule elections are bad for democracy. The political science claim that ‘liberal democracy’ triumphs when GDP per capita climbs to around US $6,000 also doesn’t apply to Thailand. Equally false is the old political science claim, repeated recently by Francis Fukuyama, that middle classes display something like a ‘natural’ penchant for ‘liberal democracy’. In Thailand, they do not. They indulge a different understanding of democracy, and they’re prepared to take to the streets to fight for it.

Fifth: this really is a political crisis, a turning point when the future shape of Thailand is up for grabs. There is a looming threat of military intervention, which if it happened (for the 19th time since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932) would confirm the old officer-mentality rule that soldiers are the best remedy for democracy (‘Gegen Demokraten helfen nur Soldaten’, runs the German proverb). Uncivil war and democide may be on the horizon, unless fresh mechanisms of democratic compromise are brought into play. But where might they be found? Politically independent bodies such as the Election Commission and the courts are fast being sucked into the maelstrom. A quick embrace of new independent monitory forms of democracy, so badly needed in the country, is improbable. Its weak civil society has limited self-healing powers. The cult of monarchy seems to be dying. Outside peacemakers, latter-day figures playing the lawmaker role of Demonax of Mantinea, are meanwhile nowhere on the horizon. Thailand can also expect little help from the Copenhagen Principle, let’s call it. This rule specifies that when a country falls prey to anti-democratic trends its chances of survival as a democracy are strongly boosted if it’s bordered by other democracies. Democracy always requires geo-political protection. Unfortunately, Thailand is surrounded by autocratic regimes that officially spout their support for ‘peace, independence, democracy, unity and prosperity’ (the motto of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic) but are, in reality, hostile to the right of citizens to govern themselves.

Finally: the collapse of democracy in Thailand, if it happens, would be much more than a thumping blow against its own people. It would be a setback for democracy everywhere within a region that is now much more than the geo-political heartland and economic centre of gravity of the world. The Kingdom of Thailand, and the wider region in which it stands, resembles a global political laboratory. It is a 21st-century testing ground, a place where the future of democracy is being decided, slowly but surely. So watch what happens there, carefully.

An earlier version of these comments was published by the ABC’s The Drum.

The Democracy Monument at sunset, Bangkok, July 2012 Weerakarn Satitniramai/flickr