Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Vote for ‘No-Vote’ - People Power or Mob Rule in Thailand?

Democracy in Asia
Financial Times
April 4 2006

It is tempting for Asian authoritarians to point to the confusion in Thailand after Sunday's election, as well as the instability in the Philippines, and dismiss democracy as a risky and supposedly western concept that should no longer be """"exported"""" to east Asia.

This analysis is self-serving and wrong. Most east Asian democracies - with the exception of the system successfully imposed on post-war Japan by the US - have arisen naturally, if fitfully, over the past 30 years as a result of increasing wealth and sophistication among citizens no longer impressed by dictators or military rulers.

Flawed individuals and constitutions, not inappropriate political philosophies, are to blame for the latest crises afflicting the democracies of south-east Asia. The problem with Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the Philippine president, is not democracy but the way she subverted it by secretly talking to an election official during the vote-counting in 2004 and then refusing to explain herself when damning recordings of her telephone calls were leaked.

Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai prime minister who called this week's snap election in an attempt to bolster his legitimacy, is an authoritarian leader, not an instinctive democrat. Chastened by what turned out to be only a half-hearted endorsement from the voters, he deserves some credit for suggesting last night that he might stand down if asked to do so by a committee of eminent persons, even if there are justifiable suspicions about how such a committee might be formed. Until now, Mr Thaksin, a telecommunications billionaire proud of his "CEO-style" of government, has relentlessly exploited the weaknesses of the Thai political system without honouring the spirit of the home-grown democratic constitution.

His opponents, led by the Democrat party, took a big risk in boycotting the poll. They arguably betrayed their democratic ideals by ignoring the popular vote and relying instead on street protests, appeals to the hereditary king and the constitutional niceties that will delay the opening of parliament following a largely uncontested election.

Mr Thaksin's critics, however, are right about one thing: for liberal democracy to succeed, citizens must enjoy not only the right to vote but also the broader benefits of a free society, including an impartial justice system and a free flow of information.

On these issues, Mr Thaksin's rule has been disastrous. His government has favoured the businesses of his family and friends, harassed the media and undermined supposedly independent bodies, such as the National Counter Corruption Commission, designed to monitor the executive.

For Asian democrats, the one good result to emerge from this otherwise inconclusive election is Mr Thaksin's admission that he was not as indispensable as people thought. Now it is up to both sides to avoid violence as the political wrangling continues.


I’m undecided whether to view Thaksin Shinawatra’s shock decision on April 4th to step down from power as an end to the political saga in Thailand or the beginning of worse things to follow...

His stepping down from power may be good riddance for the Bangkok folks who were becoming increasingly frustrated over Thaksin’s misrule, particularly his blatant use of power for personal profit (read his family’s not liable for tax on the Bt73 billion profit from the Temasek-Shincorp deal; For more details on the deal, see Straits Times, “Thai tycoon pumps in $112M for stake in Shin Corp”, 16 Mar 2006).

I understand that the Temasek-Shincorp deal was restructured to ensure that the Shinawatras would not be liable to any tax payment at all. While they did not, in fact, violate securities laws over the sale, the avoidance of tax payment from Temasek-Shincorp deal was probably political foolhardy on Thaksin’s part. The family’s deliberateness to avoid tax liability was portrayed by Thaksin’s opponents as a clear selling out of national interests for personal profits, which easily found resonance among the tax paying populace. (I shall not bore you with the technical details of the deal. Those interested may wish to refer to The Nation, “Book outlines key issues in Shin takeover scandal”.)

Apparently, it was ‘people power’ that brought about the political change in Thailand. They came in tens of thousands - the young, the old and the families. They gathered at Bangkok’s main shopping district, Siam Square and its upscale malls. Their message was clear enough - “Thaksin, get out!” It was a vivid demonstration of the return of power to the people. Or was it?

Although I am no fan of his populist agenda, Thaksin has undeniably his set of staunch supporters who were won over by his 30-baht healthcare scheme, One Tambon, One Product (OTOP) program and other debt relief packages for the rural folk. Thaksin promised and delivered real benefits to the common citizen who had not gotten much out of politics in the past.

Notwithstanding his personal failings (critics cited his lack of moral legitimacy), one cannot deny that Thaksin is genuinely popular in Thailand. While the lenses of international media focused on anti-Thaksin demonstrations at Bangkok’s Siam Square (including at the new Paragon!?), one should not forget that there were also over 30,000 Thaksin supporters, including those that came from the villages outside of Bangkok, who had camped at Chatuchak (famous for its weekend flea market?) to cheer Thaksin on.

Hey, the fact is that Thaksin is a democratically elected leader. Although the opposition parties took no part in the election over the weekend (slamming it as a sham), Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (literally, Thai love Thai) party won Sunday’s ballot as a matter of fact, with a majority of 57% of the vote. Look, while he may be unpopular among the Bangkok city folks and the southern Thai populace, Sunday’s ballot results showed that Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai party have the popular mandate of the electorate in all other parts of Thailand.

I am therefore uneasy that it was mob rule that returned triumphant in the latest saga in Thailand and sadly so. Regrettably, democracy proved no contest for the might of Bangkok’s street justice…

Well, it is without a doubt that democracy is more than just elections. It is about the rule of law, legitimacy, transparency and accountability. That combination, I feel, can only be achieved through an evolution of institutional democratic habits and not spectacular revolutions by the motley masses. And surely, a respect of the polling results (ie the choice of Thai people from all parts of Thailand, not just Bangkok) is the very basis of democratic principles.

What next for the anti-Thaksin opposition and what constitutional role will they perform now they are not represented in the next parliament? Will Thailand degenerate into ‘mob-o-cracy’ (mob rule aka ‘ochlocracy’)?

No comments: