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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The end of democracy in Thailand?

By Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly

Thailand’s fledgling democracy is now all but dead; bloodied and battered on the streets of Bangkok. How did this happen?

In 2005 we were in a northern Thai village undertaking field research on local economic and political issues. Our research coincided with the national election held in February that year. Thaksin Shinawatra’s now disbanded “Thais Love Thais” party, backed up by a formidable campaign machine, stormed to victory with strong support in the rural north and northeast. It was Thailand’s most comprehensive election victory ever.

In the country’s rural heartlands Thaksin’s policies of universal health care, infrastructure investment, local economic stimulus, and agricultural debt relief were wildly popular. Even the murders that punctuated his bloody “war on drugs” were applauded by many rural Thais who were fed up with the nightmare of narcotic abuse. To succeed at the ballot box, Thaksin learned to speak the language of rural Thailand in a cadence that alternated between populism and brutality.

In the northern village where we were working, Thaksin’s policies were not embraced uncritically. Vigorous debate about the positive and negative impacts of government action on local livelihoods was an everyday aspect of electoral culture. Many commentators say that rural people don’t care about government corruption. Of course they do, but they have their own ways of weighing up the contentious trade-off between private gain and public benefit.

In 2005, these debates informed a vigorous local tussle between the sitting “Thais Love Thais” candidate and a popular opposition figure who had served the area well in previous governments. This was a very real contest.

On election day the village hall was set-up to meet the strict requirements of Thailand’s electoral laws. Officials, conscripted from the ranks of local school teachers and village leaders, managed the hundreds of voters who came to exercise their franchise. The turnout was more than 80 per cent. Scrutineers nominated by the main candidates amiably watched over proceedings.

At the end of the day, once the lines of voters had fulfilled their obligations, the ballot boxes were sealed with string and wax and then transported, under police guard and with a sizeable escort, to the electorate’s vote-counting centre in the grounds of a provincial high school.

The ballot boxes from far-flung villagers were assembled for the count. Groups from each village waited patiently to empty their ballot box into the huge tub from which the votes were retrieved. College students were enlisted to count the votes and write the growing tallies on results boards.

For those, like us, for whom elections involve a night in front of the television, this was an extraordinarily open and participatory event. It was held, quite literally, in the public gaze. By the end of the night it was clear that Thaksin’s man had won, despite a strong showing from his opponent in many villages.

Thailand’s voters have been through this process twice since then. In 2006 Thaksin called a snap election in response to street protests in Bangkok. The opposition, lead by the current prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, boycotted the election, knowing they had no chance of victory. Thaksin attracted over 60 per cent of the valid votes cast. He was eventually overthrown in the coup of September 2006 and another election was held in December 2007.

Thaksin was in exile, but his political allies won again, falling just short of an absolute majority. But the anti-Thaksin forces could not accept this result either and they managed to manoeuvre Abhisit Vejjaiva into power on the back of the yellow shirt occupation of Bangkok’s international airport and the dissolution of the pro-Thaksin governing party.

The detailed history of the tactics of the red shirts, since they began their current round of protests in Bangkok on March 12 will be written in the coming months and years.

There have been mistakes, miscalculations and some unedifying displays of thuggery and provocation. But the underlying motivation of the protesters is clear: they are fed up with having election results overturned.

They have gone peacefully to the ballot box three times since 2005 and each time elite forces associated with the palace, the military, the judiciary and Abhisit’s Democrat Party, have disregarded their decision. The red shirts have been told that their votes don’t count, that they are uneducated country bumpkins, and that they sell their votes to the highest bidder.

It is unsurprising that many of them were suspicious about Abhisit’s offer to hold yet another election on November 14. There were even more suspicious about the willingness of the forces that back Abhisit to respect its result. The elite’s disregard for electoral processes has opened the door for violent elements on both sides of the political spectrum.

So where to now?

Many in Thailand, including some of the villagers in the north, may be hoping that Thailand’s long-reigning king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, will intervene and talk some royal sense into the combatants as he famously did in May 1992 after more than 40 protesters had been killed on the streets of Bangkok.

But, in 2010, this is unlikely to happen again.

Quite apart from the king’s extremely fragile health, the palace has made it clear since the 2006 coup that it sides with anti-Thaksin forces. When the anti-Thaksin yellow shirts occupied Bangkok’s international airport in November and December 2008, they did so under an explicit royal banner with all of the protections that such palace endorsement implies. By contrast, the prospect of royal intervention to save the red shirts from the wrath of the military is now remote.

In fact, some are starting to wonder out loud if Thailand’s monarchy is now, in fact, part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

Decades of national faith invested in an unelected monarch as the ultimate source of authority and salvation in times of crisis has stunted the development of robust democratic institutions. Thailand has put too many eggs into the royal basket and now lacks the institutional wherewithal to constructively resolve political divisions.

There is considerable truth to the old joke that Thailand is the world’s longest lasting fledgling democracy, and that truth owes much to the fact that the symbolic power of the monarch has overshadowed opportunities for elected politicians to manage national affairs.

When the shooting and burning in Bangkok finally subsides Thailand is going to have to rebuild faith in its basic democratic institutions. Cultivating a more respectful attitude to the political choices of its many rural inhabitants would be a good place to start.

Andrew Walker and Nicholas Farrelly are Southeast Asia specialists in the ANU’s College of Asia and the Pacific. They are the co-founders of New Mandala, a blog on mainland Southeast Asian politics and societies.

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