In a world now accustomed to democratic upheavals, including the Arab Spring and the Saffron and Orange Revolutions, the weeks of political upheaval in Thailand stand out for one main peculiarity. Protesters massing on the streets here are demanding less democracy, not more.
From their stage beneath the Democracy Monument, a Bangkok landmark, protesters cheer their campaign to replace Parliament with a “people’s council” in which members are selected from various professions rather than elected by voters.
The embattled prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, has proposed new elections as a solution to the turmoil. But that is just what the protesters do not want.
In today’s fractured Thailand, a majority wants more democracy, but a minority, including many rich and powerful people, is petrified by the thought of it.
Because a number of the protest leaders are members of Thailand’s wealthiest families, some have described the demonstrations here as the antithesis of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is the 1 percent rebelling against the 99 percent, they say.
The reality is more complicated — the protesters include rich and poor, Bangkok residents and many people from southern Thailand who feel disenfranchised by the current government and its northern power base. What unites the protesters is the desire to dismantle Ms. Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party, which has won every election since 2001.
The anti-democracy protests, which have been some of the largest in Thai history, call into question the commonly held belief that a rising tide of wealth in a society will naturally be followed by greater demands for democracy. Thailand today is much richer than it was two decades ago, but it is also much more divided.
On the face of it, the crux of the protest appears to be a classic power struggle between a dominant majority and a minority frustrated by its losing streak in elections and its inability to influence national policies in a winner-takes-all, highly centralized system.
But Thailand’s crisis is multifaceted and tightly intertwined with the fact that King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the country’s 86-year-old monarch, who during more than six decades on the throne has been revered to the point of quasi-religious devotion, is ailing and that the country is bracing for his death.
More broadly, Somsak Jeamteerasakul, a leading Thai scholar on the monarchy, argues that Thailand’s protracted political turmoil has been exacerbated by the contrast between a deified king and politicians who appear crass and venal in contrast. “We have an image of monarchy that is flawlessly excellent in everything,” he said in 2010. “If we had not built this image in the first place, we would not have so many problems and complaints with politicians.
Respect for the king, and the notion of his near-infallibility and beneficence, are deeply ingrained in Thais from the earliest years of schooling.
This blog is concerning the legitimacy of protests calling for replacing the democratically elected government with an appointed “peoples council”. There are two central tenets of liberal democracy I will base this analysis on:
1) Liberal democracy is meant to uphold the will of the majority, while protecting the rights of the minority.
2) Everyone is viewed as equal in the eyes of the government; no one person has more or less influence over political outcomes than another.
Based on uncontested election results, and the fact that protesters are not satisfied with the proposition of early elections offered by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, one can assume the protesters represent a minority of Thailand’s population. Based on this article, there is no evidence that the rights of this minority are being infringed upon.
Protesters cannot claim a mismanagement of the economy, as the per capita GNI has more than doubled over the past decade. Thailand’s HDI has been trending upwards for decades, and it’s poverty rates have been going down for years (accompanied by a decline in the Gini inequality index)–the current democratic governance structure surely has some merits. One particular area of concern is Thailand’s level of perceived corruption / lack of transparency, however a move away from democracy would likely exacerbate this problem.
It seems rather that protesters, unhappy with populist policies that do not directly benefit them, are trying to change the policy making process to one which they can control. Such a move would be a violation of the two tenets of liberal democracy listed above. It would amount to upholding the will of the minority while violating the political rights of the majority. It would also give more power to the desires of select individuals.
To appease the opposition, the government should consider changing its parliament from a “first past the poll” system to a proportional representation system, to ensure a plurality of opinions in policy making. The government should also consider expanding civilian oversight mechanisms, to increase transparency and allay fears of corruption / embezzlement.
To become a more effective political party, the opposition should consider embracing policies which have had success in reducing poverty / inequality while simultaneously increasing economic growth. Such pragmatism is a necessary component for the continued relevance of any political party; in democracies everywhere, parties which do not embrace popular and effective policies tend to fall by the wayside.
So far, the King and the military have stayed out of this fight, hopefully they will continue to do so and allow the democratic process to fix the unrest it has caused. Thailand should not dismantle its democratic system, which has a long history of effective governance.