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Whither Democracy in Thailand?

April 8, 2009

RUNGROJ YONGRIT/EPA

RUNGROJ YONGRIT/EPA

As red-shirted protesters continue to block access to the Government House, just as their yellow-shirted foes did a few months ago, one wonders where democracy is headed in Thailand. A dozen years ago, Thailand drafted a constitution through a participatory process seen as a model for other emerging democracies. Thailand was a rising star, the standard for democratic development that other Asian nations sought to emulate. Now, 12 years later, Thailand’s democracy looks tarnished and tattered.

After suffering for decades with weak coalition governments, weak protection of human rights, and changes of government through military coups, Thailand crafted a new constitution in 1997 that was intended to usher in a new era of democratic government. It would strengthen the executive branch of government while providing stronger checks and balances on its authority, strengthen rights protection for ordinary people, and remove forever the threat of a military take-over of civilian government. Unfortunately, since then the stronger executive branch has easily overcome the checks and balances incorporated in the constitution, successive governments have trampled on the rights of the people, and the military has seized power through a coup and has re-written the constitution. How did it all go wrong, and what can Thailand’s people do to regain their place as the foremost democracy in Southeast Asia?

Over the past eight years, the country has become increasingly polarized, and its institutions politicized. The rapid period of polarization began when Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party ran for office in 2001 on a populist platform that appealed directly to the urban poor and rural masses, bypassing completely traditional power-brokers in the military, bureaucracy, and business. This created an opportunity to define society in a different way: us versus them, poor against rich, the weak but virtuous standing up to crooked but powerful vested interests. These splits may have been more perception than reality to begin with, but perception is powerful, and over time can create its own reality.

In recent years, color has also contributed to the polarization of society. Yellow shirts were once worn on Mondays to show love of the King, but now to wear a yellow shirt is to clearly declare one’s political allegiance, just as wearing a red shirt places one in the opposing camp. Inevitably caught in the middle is the monarchy itself, with yellow-shirts claiming that anyone who does not agree with their position is against the monarchy, and red-shirts responding that the yellow-shirts show disrespect to the monarchy by using the King’s color for their own political purposes. Color has become a code that allows complex situations to be simplified; it’s black or white; he’s red and she’s yellow; that province is red and that one yellow, etc.

The institutions of state, including the independent institutions established under the 1997 constitution, are increasingly viewed as heavily politicized, which contributes to the corresponding impression of a decrease in rule of law in Thailand. During Thaksin’s time as prime minister, the courts and the election commission were believed by many to be under his control or influence, but since the coup these institutions are generally perceived (at least by Thaksin’s supporters) to be biased in favor of his political opponents; the People’s Alliance for Democracy, the military, and the Democrat party.

Although many people believe the 2007 Thai Constitution is in some ways better than the 1997 Constitution that it replaced, it lacks democratic legitimacy and weakens democracy for a number of reasons. First, it was drafted by a team appointed by the military junta that seized power in 2006. And in addition to provisions designed to advance the junta’s political agenda, it includes a blanket amnesty for the coup-makers. Second, it strengthens unelected institutions, and changes the Senate from a wholly-elected to a partially-appointed body, weakening accountability. Third, it was enacted through a referendum process fraught with fraud, in which voters’ only choice was to either approve the junta’s constitution or allow the junta to revise one of Thailand’s previous constitutions.

Unfortunately the current Democrat-led coalition government, which assumed office through normal parliamentary procedures, also lacks democratic legitimacy, as it came to power not through popular elections but because of the court-ordered dissolution of other political parties and the banning of those party’s most popular politicians. Although a provision allowing the dissolution of political parties was included in the 1997 Constitution, the laws that allow banning politicians were drafted by the junta, presumably with the intention of suppressing their political opponents.

Dissolving political parties and banning many politicians for the crimes of a few is in legal terms called “collective punishment.” It punishes the innocent politicians barred from office, but also punishes the voters who are denied the political representation they voted for. Voters will understand if a corrupt politician is found guilty of a crime and removed from office for cause, but when their representative is removed by the court for no cause, and replaced with a representative from a party they did not vote for, voters will understandably perceive the courts as unjust or biased, and the new representative appointed by the court as illegitimate.

Although the political conflict in Thailand has been personalized to a large extent, there are real issues that underlie the political divide. Prior to Thaksin’s election, many rural and urban poor people felt exploited, and believed the government was too focused on the interests of a middle-class and wealthy Bangkok-based academic and commercial elite. After Thaksin’s election there was a marked shift in policy, and people in the city felt slighted. They resented being forced to pay for his populist programs aimed at rural areas, and complained of a tyranny of the majority.

One means to reduce this tension could be political decentralization. If people in a local area have control over, and pay for, their own services, there will be no reason for conflict with other areas, while democracy and accountability will be enhanced. Political decentralization might also help resolve the separatist conflict in the south.

Another way to reduce tension and improve democratic representation would be to allow people to vote where they live. Currently, many people who live in Bangkok are counted for representation in their home village or town, meaning that those areas are over-represented in national government, while Bangkok is under-represented. If representation and voting were based on where people actually live, Bangkok people would not feel under-represented, and everyone would enjoy better representation and improved political accountability.

Tim Meisburger is The Asia Foundation’s Regional Director for Elections and Political Processes and is based in Thailand. He can be reached at tmeisburger@asiafound.org.

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One comment on this post:

  1. [...] Meisburger’s April 8 In Asia post “Whither Democracy in Thailand?” is excerpted by PBS’s Worldfocus website in a long feature about the situation in Thailand. [...]

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