Thailand contemplates a different kind of democracy

Sholto Byrnes asks: Given that it has again overthrown a democratically elected government, why hasn't Thailand come in for more international criticism?

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On the surface, the never-ending drama of misfortune that has been the lot of the former Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, his proxy successors and their parties, and now his sister Yingluck, ever since his unseating in a coup in 2006, appears straightforward.

On May 7, Thailand's Constitutional Court disqualified Ms Yingluck from the office of prime minister on the grounds she had improperly transferred a relative to an important police post. The following day, the National Anti-Corruption Commission announced it would be impeaching her over her role overseeing the National Rice Policy. Yesterday, the head of Thailand's army announced the imposition of martial law, urging both pro- and anti-government protesters (the latter of which have shut down administration buildings and occupied the prime minister's office) to "stop their movement in order to quickly find a solution for the country".

While the precise role the army will take is unclear, martial law does give it "superior power over the civil authority" – that is the caretaker government formerly headed by Ms Yingluck. Yet again, it would seem, the old Thai establishment has found a way to wrest power from Thaksin supporters, whose parties have won six elections in a row, from 2001 to the last, this February. (Parties, plural, because that same Constitutional Court has twice dissolved pro-Thaksin vehicles, obliging them to rise again as new entities. Ever inventive, in 2008 it also dismissed another pro-Thaksin prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, for being paid a fee to appear on TV cooking shows while in office.)

The opposition may call themselves royalists, and garb themselves in the language of liberty, organising under the banner of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee, the Democrat Party and the People’s Alliance for Democracy. But it is those who have not accepted these elections, including powerful elements in the military, the Privy Council, judiciary and Bangkok business classes who are, on the face of it, opposed to democracy. They have, after all, effectively overturned the verdict of the people on every occasion they have stepped in, and on grounds that most observers have regarded as pretty specious.

Why, then, has there been such a lack of international outcry? Partly this may be down to Thailand’s current lack of geopolitical significance, certainly relative to the decades during which the United States counted on the country as a bulwark against the Communist “domino effect” in South East Asia. When King Bhumibol Adulyadej visited America in 1960, no effort to welcome and entertain him was spared. He addressed Congress, was presented with the Legion of Merit by President Eisenhower, met Elvis Presley and Bob Hope, and, being a keen jazz musician, was invited to participate in a jam session with Benny Goodman, the “King of Swing” himself, causing the late vibes player Lionel Hampton to comment: “He is simply the coolest king in the land.”

The conspicuous absence of concern about the implementation of the democratic process in Thailand – so contrarily evident when it comes to neighbouring Myanmar – may also be due to a queasiness about whether majorities alone provide sufficient legitimacy. According to the opposition, the answer is not only “no”, but that those margins of advantage have led to “abuse of parliamentary power, majoritarianism and corruption”, according to the former Democrat finance minister Korn Chatikavanij.

Plenty of democracies have polling systems that allow parties to win on a minority of the vote, with advisers to Britain’s Labour Party recently suggesting they pursue a core vote strategy whereby they could gain control of the House of Commons with 35 per cent, or barely more than a third, of ballots cast. George Bush secured his first term in the White House while losing the popular vote, infamously, perhaps, but also perfectly legally. Some scholars go even further: a recent essay in Foreign Affairs magazine argued that “free and fair elections are neither necessary nor sufficient for democratisation”. So if it is widely accepted that majorities are no guarantee of legitimacy, then perhaps the reluctance to criticise stems from some sympathy with the view that Mr Thaksin, still backseat driving from exile, is a would-be autocrat whose supporters rigged elections by buying votes, and for whom the democratic process is only a means, not an end in which he truly believes.

I suspect, however, that two other factors are at play: the first is general bafflement at the highly opaque nature of Thai politics, and the second is confusion over precisely what we mean by “democracy”. In the first case, while international broadcast networks have often taken a reductionist view of the protests and counter-protests of the last few years – characterising one side as “good” and the other as “bad” – at the diplomatic and governmental level there has been an acknowledgement that the situation is far more complex. Mr Thaksin, for instance, has a long history with Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, who lacks the popular reverence and adoration in which his ailing father is held. When the succession comes, an alliance between the two may prove mutually beneficial. Would that be regarded as more “democratic”?

In the second case, if it is true that “democracy is not a one-size-fits-all garment”, then one must accept that the Thai version is very different from the Western model.

Indeed, such has been the influence of the court and those close to the king, one could argue that although the country officially became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the transition has never fully taken effect.

If we cannot even agree on whether elections or majorities are necessary conditions for democracy, hesitancy to weigh in on Thailand’s ongoing political turmoil may be prudent. Perhaps we should merely concur with the US exhortation that the Thai military respect “democratic principles” – and hope that the Thai people can peacefully work out what that means for themselves.

Sholto Byrnes is a Doha-based editor and commentator