Thailand’s Democratic Disorder

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By Thitinan Pongsudhirak-BANGKOK – From Thailand to Turkey to Ukraine, the relationship between ruling
majorities and electoral minorities has become combustible – and is threatening to
erode the legitimacy of democracy itself. The unfolding crisis in Bangkok – where a
political minority has taken to the streets to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck
Shinawatra’s democratically elected government – is a case in point.

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) won an outright majority in Thailand’s 2011 general
election, gaining 265 MPs in the 500-member lower house. But the opposition
Democratic Party – which returned 159 MPs, mainly from Bangkok and southern Thailand
– has lately been staging protests in the capital. The so-called “People’s Committee
for Democratic Reform” – led by former Democratic Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban and
supported by the Bangkok-based establishment – has effectively attempted to stage a

The protests began when the government tried to enact amnesty legislation that would
have overturned the conviction of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra –
Yingluck’s brother and the PTP’s founder, who was overthrown by the military in 2006
– on charges of corruption and abuse of power. (It also would have superseded the
murder charges brought against the Democratic Party’s leader, former Prime Minister
Abhisit Vejjajiva.) But Yingluck’s subsequent attempt to backtrack on the amnesty
measure failed to mollify the opposition.

In fact, the street protests intensified, fueled by a new grievance. The Yingluck
government had refused to accept the Constitutional Court’s ruling against a bill to
change the senate from a half-appointed to a fully elected chamber. The government
asserted that the court did not have jurisdiction over constitutional amendments.
The People’s Committee viewed this rejection as an attempt to pressure the king into
countersigning the law – and thus as a threat to royal prerogatives and the king’s
exalted role in Thailand.

The People’s Committee’s position deserves explanation, if not agreement. Since the
turn of the century, Thaksin’s party machines, powered by his populist policies,
have overcome constant challenges – from both the military and the Constitutional
Court – to beat the conservative-royalist Democrats in every election.

Opposition forces, fed up as much with Thaksin’s corrupt practices as with his
longstanding popularity, have recently begun seizing government ministries and
calling for a royally appointed government. If they succeed, PTP supporters will
likely descend on Bangkok, much as they did in 2009-2010, after a “judicial coup”
dissolved Thaksin’s People’s Power Party, the PTP’s predecessor, and the Democrats
formed a coalition government. But, this time, the protesters will be even angrier,
and the stakes will be much higher, because the monarchy’s role in Thailand’s
electoral democracy will be called into question.

The mere plausibility of such an outcome underscores Thailand’s deep political
polarization. The PTP’s supporters are happy with a system that grants them a
political voice – indeed, predictable electoral majorities – and that safeguards
their rights. But the minority – which comprises up to two-fifths of the electorate
– is at a loss. Its legitimacy and influence depend not on winning electoral
majorities, but on its strong alliances with the military, bureaucracy, and
judiciary in defense of a traditional hierarchy that places the king at its apex.

Making matters worse, voters on both sides are tuning in only to views with which
they agree, rather than attempting to understand and reconcile opposing arguments.
Social media – the much-lauded catalyst of democratization in authoritarian
countries – has exacerbated the trend toward polarization in Thailand, just as it
has in other electoral democracies that are struggling with a widening
majority-minority divide, like Turkey and Malaysia.

In emerging democracies, electoral minorities tend to be tied to the old
establishment, and often oppose change led by popular upstarts. Feeling marginalized
and resentful, they may turn to public platforms like social media and the streets
to advance their causes and undermine their opponents’ authority.

The proliferation of information technology, together with the unprecedented popular
participation that it has fueled, means that electoral minorities have a growing
number of increasingly powerful tools at their disposal to organize movements aimed
at paralyzing their countries’ governments and even shortening leaders’ terms in
office. Indeed, with so much seemingly at stake, a four- or five-year term may seem
too long to wait for change.

But, while the right to peaceful protest is critically important in a democracy,
electoral minorities should not use endless demonstrations to take the political
system hostage. In order to create a peaceful, stable, and effective democratic
system, electoral minorities must accept the ballot box as the arbiter of political

At the same time, majorities should not view an electoral victory as a license to
act without regard for minority concerns. While the government must deliver for its
constituents, it must also protect its opponents’ rights. To this end, Thailand
urgently needs a new social contract that allows elected representatives to do their
jobs, without marginalizing the establishment-based minority.

Increasingly complex majority-minority dynamics are shaping the democratization
prospects of a number of countries, and could influence democracy’s durability as a
system of government. Thailand’s experience suggests that efforts to subvert the
system by thwarting the will of the majority may ultimately be fruitless, though not
before imposing extremely high costs on everyone.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and
International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science
in Bangkok.

source Project Syndicate, 2013.

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