Middle East reformers would do well to study Thailand for lessons in how not to build a democracy.
With Thailand’s institutions only half developed following the euphoria of the early 1990s, its middle class, which once had fought for democracy, now faced an extremely tough choice as it watched Thaksin undermine the rule of law and gather enormous power around himself. Would they stick to the hard road of fighting for good governance and reform, when it could take years to oust Thaksin, if it ousted him at all? While Thailand’s political space had narrowed, it was hardly Libya or Belarus. Even under Thaksin, independent media voices still existed, with opposition newspapers openly criticizing the prime minister; the major opposition political party, the Democrat Party, still had a sizable group of seats, and could campaign openly in elections in a manner that would have been impossible in a place like Eritrea or Zimbabwe; though Thaksin enjoyed the support of the poor, Thai voters could be fickle, and it was not assured that he’d remain in power for decades. But the middle classes also realized that his populist rule stood to cost them their social and economic privileges—their dominance of banking and other business in the capital, and their links to the Thai monarchy, which assured those who had these ties of exalted status in society and business opportunities .
In Thailand, some of the anti-Thaksin protestors attended the 2006 rallies because of genuine concern about how the prime minister had amassed enormous power for himself. But others, including protest leader Sondhi Limthongkul, a wealthy media mogul who turned against Thaksin only after the prime minister threatened Sondhi’s holdings, came to the demonstrations because they realized that if Thaksin stayed in power, Thailand’s old order—in which a small number of businessmen, royalists, army officers, and civil servants had steered the country for years—would eventually be overturned. That old order, after all, had served the Bangkok middle class very well.
So, rather than battling Thaksin within the framework of democracy, and adopting some of Thaksin’s populist-style policies (which now, belatedly, the Thai government has done), the middle-class protestors endorsed a different concept of “democracy” from that of the working class, writes Marc Askew, editor of Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand. For the middle class, he says, “Western-style electoral democracy will always be compromised by Thailand’s corrupt politicians.” Indeed, many of Chamlong’s supporters encouraged a return to older forms of Thai “democracy,” in which a small oligarchy essentially controlled politics through unelected positions in parliament and the bureaucracy and the army, and the masses’ voting power mattered much less.
In elections scheduled for later this year, the party of Thailand’s urban middle class, the Democrats, will again contest the poll nationwide, running against pro-poor parties that have picked up the mantle for the exiled Thaksin. But for the Democrats to win, most Thai observers agree, the army and the royalists will have to convince some smaller political parties to join with the Democrats in a coalition. This is already happening: in the run-up to the new election, according to several Thai human rights activists, army leaders are quietly approaching top politicians and twisting arms to get them to join with the Democrat Party. In other nations, the middle classes have used similarly dubious means to push out elected leaders. Often, the middle-class men and women who first grabbed democracy in the street have turned again to the street.
In the Philippines, for example, the middle classes have become almost addicted to demonstrations designed to oust elected leaders they don’t like by means other than the ballot box. In 2001, urban Filipinos poured into the streets to topple President Joseph Estrada, a former actor who rose to power on his macho appeal with the masa, the underclass in the Philippines, and then demonstrated again in an attempt to remove his successor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
In Honduras, a similar story has played out. President Manuel Zelaya, who took office in early 2006, pushed to change the constitution to give himself more terms in office. Zelaya also enacted populist economic policies, like a hike in the minimum wage, which angered many middle-class business owners. As the day of a referendum on constitutional change drew near in 2009, Zelaya’s middle-class opponents began to openly protest his plans and agitate for him to be removed by force. In June 2009, the military stepped in, an intervention welcomed by many in the capital, Tegucigalpa. The army ousted Zelaya, forcing him into exile.
This middle-class habit of relying on street protests and military intervention to check the excesses of democratically elected populist leaders is hardly a solution. Instead, it merely motivates the working class to resort to similar tactics. Hence the events in Thailand last spring, when the red-shirted supporters of the exiled Thaksin took to the streets, sparking a deadly response from the security forces and the ultimate cataclysm of violence that destroyed central Bangkok.
Unlike, say, two decades ago, when they might have simply accepted a middleclass-backed putsch and an illegitimate government, now the Thai working class will no longer stand for it. As in the Middle East at the moment, many rural Thais have cell phones, computers, and access to the Internet; they can listen to clandestine opposition radio stations or follow opposition Thai blogs that criticize the government and play a cat-and-mouse game with censors.
As several of the authors in the book note, many poor Thais, too, have attained enough education to be able to scrutinize government promises and interact directly with local officials and politicians. Twenty years ago, with less education and more fear of Bangkok urbanites and the military, many poor Thais accepted that they could not control politics, and that their fate in life was the result of bad karma, a kind of Buddhist punishment. Today, that type of fatalism is far more rare. With Thaksin, they saw—as poor Venezuelans saw with Chávez or poor Bolivians with Evo Morales—that if they became engaged in politics and banded together, they could elect a leader sympathetic to their concerns. Thaksin was a very flawed leader, and as a billionaire himself he was hardly familiar with poverty, but his policies did endear him to the working class.
As nearly all the authors in Legitimacy Crisis in Thailand agree, Thailand is not likely to rebound quickly from its current meltdown. The decision by Chamlong and other middle-class democrats to turn against Thaksin has badly split Thailand along class lines, with trust between the middle class and the working class vanishing. That trust will be hard to rebuild, and the current government, dominated by middle-class urbanites, isn’t exactly trying: just as Thaksin once did, the government in Thailand now jails demonstrators allied with the opposition, blocks the Internet, and harasses any critical journalists. The middle class’s support for military intervention could undermine the integrity of civilian government for generations. Violence has become increasingly common in a country once regarded as one of the most stable nations in Southeast Asia and an example of democratic consolidation to other developing countries.
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