Has Thailand lost faith in its democracy?

Has Thailand lost faith in its democracy?

Thailand has experienced a surge of anti-government protests that could ultimately threaten the country’s democratic system.

In a region characterized by autocratic and repressive governments, Thailand has been a rare pioneer of democracy. Its experience has been far from stable, however. With 11 successful and 7 attempted military coups Thailand has witnessed more coup d’états than any country since 1932. But unlike most of its neighbors, domestic politics in Thailand are vocal and dynamic, and the media face minimal censorship, except for the very sensitive issue of the royal family’s role.

Yet, in the current political crisis the democratic system itself has frequently been criticized as ‘broken’ and demonstrators have advocated replacing the government with an unelected People’s Council. The middle and upper class in Bangkok have become increasingly disillusioned with popular elections.

The recent demonstrations are merely the latest development in an escalating power struggle between the political elite in Bangkok and the clan of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the brother of incumbent Prime Minister Yingluck. Ever since he was ousted during the 2006 military coup, Thailand has experienced recurrent unrest between his popular support movement (the Red Shirts) and the anti-Thaksin alliance (the Yellow Shirts).

The anti-government protesters that have paralyzed Bangkok for the last two months are a diverse group: supporters of the Democratic Party and Thaksins political foes are mixed together with leftists, ultra-nationalists and self-proclaimed royalists. They share an intense hatred for the Shinawatra family and its role in Thai politics, and a disdain for the current electoral system that allows ‘uneducated’ voters – farmers and working class people overwhelmingly located in the rural north and northeast – to rule the country by tyranny of the parliamentary majority.

An old Thai saying holds that the government is made in the countryside but destroyed in Bangkok, exposing a deep regional and societal division between the urban elite and the rural agrarian majority. When a charismatic, populist and wealthy Thaksin won a landslide victory in 2001, the power base in Thailand shifted dramatically away from the establishment in Bangkok.

Few figures have been as divisive in Thai politics as the former police officer: the poor idolized him and the elite hated him, alleging that his overwhelming victories were due to a widespread practice of vote-buying in the north. It is telling that his defeat only came about with a military coup, which saw the generals return as key players in Thai politics and strengthen the power of the royalist elite.

The current demonstrations emerged against a proposed amnesty bill that would have pardoned all ‘political offences’ and allowed Thaksin to return from exile in Dubai, where he fled to avoid a two-year sentence for corruption. Despite the amnesty bill’s withdrawal the protests continued, with the new goal of overthrowing the government and expelling the Shinawatra-clan from Thai politics.

Knowing that they are likely to lose yet again, the Democratic Party has declined to participate in the upcoming elections after Yingluck dissolved the parliament in early December. Being unable to defeat their opponent through formal voting, the opposition has resorted to confrontations in the streets of Bangkok. Protesters have attempted to escalate to conflict to force the military to intervene again, yet the generals have so far rejected such demands.

There is little doubt that Thaksin managed to benefit financially from his time as prime minister – but the only surprise is that he was convicted for these offenses. Corrupt officials are the norm rather than the exception in Thailand, and accusations of bribery and vote-buying sound hollow when everyone is involved in the same practices. These allegations obscure the true nature of the crisis: a power struggle where the one side is determined to change the status quo and amend the established rules of the political system.

The root of the crisis is also decidedly undemocratic. Protest leaders have shamelessly questioned the rights of the poor to participate in elections since they lack the education necessary to make an informed decision and are too easily bribed by corrupt candidates. Self-proclaimed protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban has advocated utopian plans to reform the current parliamentary democracy, making – rather than elected – representatives from all occupations choose a morally ‘good man’ as prime minister. New elections should be held only after the population has been properly educated on how the democratic system is supposed to function, to avoid a tyranny of the majority as in the past.

There are no obvious paths out of the current deadlock. Political polarization is worse than ever with the opposition phobic to everything Thaksin-related, who himself is the indispensable godfather and financer of the ruling Pheu Thai party. The democratic system itself appears to be under threat as the royalist elite look for ways to circumvent the power of a parliamentary majority. If escalation continues, a Thai civil war is no longer an unthinkable option.

Categories: Asia Pacific, Politics

About Author

Havard Bergo

Håvard is a foreign policy analyst who works in Kampala for LPC Consult International, a consulting company that specializes on developing projects in East Africa and Mozambique. He has previously worked with the United Nations in Bangkok and as a project manager for a research project in Montreal. Håvard graduated with an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics (LSE).