Middle East reformers would do well to study Thailand for lessons in how not to build a democracy.
Violence is almost certain to explode again this year, and it would not be surprising to see such a cycle of violence in a country like Egypt or Tunisia either, should the euphoria of today slowly disintegrate, leaving harsh divides.
Thailand’s fate, however, is not necessarily destined to be repeated in Egypt or Tunisia or other parts of the Middle East. In some young democracies, leaders are able to uphold both electoral democracy (winning the most votes) and constitutional democracy (upholding laws and institutions). In Brazil, the two-term president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who came from a leftist and populist trade union background, both implemented policies that made a real dent in absolute poverty and reassured middle-class and elite voters that he would respect their economic power and their property rights. Lula shepherded Brazil into an economic boom and left office as probably the most popular president in the country’s history, with both the poor and the middle class. Brazil’s middle class largely bought into Lula’s plans, supporting cash transfers for the poor as one means to reduce inequality in the country and improve the social welfare of the poor. In so doing, they helped bridge divides in Brazilian society and prevent politics from disintegrating into the kind of class-based warfare that has enveloped Thailand. This has allowed the Brazilian military to step back in as a guarantor of stability.
Other developing nations, too, seem to be heading in the direction of Brazil. A basket case ten years ago after the fall of longtime dictator Suharto, Indonesia has developed into a real democratic success story, with multiple free elections, a vibrant media, and far less of the middle-class longing for a military strongman that you see in countries like Thailand or the Philippines. Unlike Thailand, Indonesia has decentralized a good deal of political and economic power, letting poor rural voters feel much more connected to democracy.
But if Egypt and other Middle Eastern nations are to achieve the kind of democratic stability seen in Brazil and Indonesia, they will first have to deal with internal conditions that are likely to guide them down Thailand’s path. In most countries in the region, the middle classes, as in Thailand, have often made their money through connections, rather than by building new companies, and are going to be far more protective of their economic and social privileges. Many of these countries, including Syria, Jordan, and some of the Persian Gulf states, have large majorities that have long been ruled by a minority elite, and so in democracy a populist could rise to power with the kind of pro-poor policies that Thaksin mastered. What’s more, as in Thailand, in many Middle Eastern nations the army has obliterated nearly all other national institutions. If such institutions are not built soon, and built well, then when middle-class men and women look for a solution to some future elected autocrat, they will have nowhere to turn but the boys in uniform.
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