Thailand's Return to Democracy

Thailand’s Democrat Party deservedly got its comeuppance in Sunday’s Pheu Thai landslide for having abandoned its principles and come to power through a combination of military intervention and abuse of the judicial process. The sheer scale of the pro-Thaksin victory should leave the military and monarchist forces in no doubt at all that attempt to thwart this popular verdict can only have tragic consequences that would radicalize many who saw the election as an opportunity for the nation to return to a democratic path.

The result should also leave no doubt that support for the monarchy, though still robust, may be increasingly conditional on the monarchy itself distancing itself from some of its more extreme self-proclaimed defenders and recognizing that the next monarch will have to accept a much less exalted status than King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest-serving monarch.

But there are dangers too in such a sweeping victory, just as Thais found out after Thaksin’s original surge to power in the 2001 election. Most immediately there will be worries about Thaksin’s youngest sister, would-be Prime Minister Yingluck, including several minor parties in her government, even though Pheu Thai has an overall majority on its own. While her desire to be seen to have a government with the widest possible backing is understandable given continued nervousness about a right-wing reaction to the election, it may also imply a return to one of the worst but most enduring aspects of Thai coalition politics – the quest for money-making positions in government as the price of political support.

It had been one of the main objectives of the 1997 Constitution to strengthen the party system so as to reduce the tendency of governments to be formed out of coalitions of parties run on the basis of the pecuniary self-interests of their leading figures and members of parliament. It was Thaksin who made the best use of the new constitution, and his own financial resources, to create the Thai Rak Thai juggernaut which swept to power in and held on to it, albeit with a reduced majority, in 2006.

The bigger question now is whether Thaksin is any closer to understanding the resentments he aroused when in power, not just from old elites but from those who felt the force of his authoritarian instincts. This was the man who undermined the generally excellent 1997 constitution by subverting the checks and balances which were supposed to have been built into it, muzzling the press as well as abusing power to generate wealth for his supporters. All that was in addition to his extra-legal campaign of the murder of so-called drug dealers and his brutal actions in the south, which further alienated the Malay/Muslim population.

Thaksin bears the marks of the authoritarian populist who believes that a popular mandate is all he needs, and that institutions should be subservient to that. When in power he was an admirer of Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, a man who similarly undermined institutions such as the judiciary, used the power of government to reward supporters with fat contracts and extended the power of the central government against that of the states. Thaksin hoped to stay in power as long as Mahathir –22 years.

The jarring fact remains that many who had high hopes for Thailand as a liberal democracy, a constitutional monarchy governed by law not by the whims of one, whether a monarch, a general or an elected figure were alarmed by Thaksin. If not sympathetic to the coup itself, staged when Thaksin’s power and popularity were already waning, believed he deserved to be put on trial for abuse of office.

The Democrats had been primarily responsible for the 1997 constitution and by and large under the low-key lawyer Chuan Leekpai, ran a competent and tolerably honest government in the difficult years after the Asian crisis. However they lost any claim to moral high ground with their alliance with the Yellow Shirts, the military and monarchist extremists, and their acceptance of a constitution imposed by the 2006 coup which undid much of the good of the 1997 charter and sought not to strengthen independent institutions but entrench the most conservative forces in power.

Many Thais doubtless wish there were a genuine third force between the compromised Democrats and the Thaksin populists. But there is not, given the venal nature of the smaller parties. So the issue now is whether the two sides have learned much from the events of the past few years. Have the Democrats really seen the folly of aligning with one set of authoritarians to counter Thaksin’s behavior? Has the Thaksin camp learned that unless it conducts government with a modicum of honesty and fair play towards opponents in the democratic process there will eventually be another rightwing reaction supported by many middle class people who don’t belong to the old elite?

Pheu Thai deserves to govern. It also deserves to be watched very closely for any signs of return to large scale corruption and authoritarian instincts.