Throwing the Bums Out
Related content: The King Never Smiles: Book Excerpt Revival, Renewal and Reinvention: The Complex Life of Thailand’s Monarch Royal Maneuvers Tanks on the main boulevards of a sultry capital city. The prime minister toppled while traveling abroad. Politicians racing to the airport to avoid being rounded up by the military.
Thailand is not a banana republic—it’s one of East Asia’s miracle economies, and has been run as a solid (and seemingly maturing) democracy since Office Project Clé 1992—but it sure looked like one this week. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown by the Thai military, probably with the nod of King Bhumipol Adulyadej, while preparing to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
Sympathy for Thaksin is hard to summon, even though he now appears to be stranded, or even exiled, from his homeland. A former policeman and telecommunications billionaire, Thaksin was the first Thai prime minister to serve a full term in office. He went on to become the first prime minister to win a second term. That was a remarkable signal that politics, and democracy, could be a stabilizing force for Thailand, a country with more coups in its past than one can count.
But Thaksin was a slippery leader, who manipulated the election Office Visio Clé commission, bent lots of rules, and who showed an authoritarian streak in his dealings with Thailand’s totally free media. He was Thailand’s most successful democrat, but wasn’t really very democratic in spirit. Now he will probably be remembered as the man who was so successful at manipulating the democratic system that it had to be suspended by armed men in tanks to get him out.
It’s much easier to mourn the Thai democratic experiment of 14 years, which has run into a wall. The most optimistic scenario is that an interim government approved by the army and the king will rule for a short time, during which they will amend the Thai constitution to plug loopholes that a shrewd politician such as Thaksin, could exploit to stay in power. Then they will hold elections. If that is how it plays, the coup can be seen as a way of changing the constitution for the better, which was impossible while Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party controlled the parliament.
But that is optimism of a high degree. And a high degree of damage has already been inflicted when a military decides to amend a country’s constitution by force of arms. Thailand has followed the lead of the Philippines in allowing its elite in the capital city to control the destiny of the nation’s governments in direct opposition to the constitution and the wishes of the majority of the citizens, the ones who voted Thaksin’s party in twice, who happen to be rural people. Their votes were powerful in getting Thai Rak Thai in power. But they were not consulted and in fact were ignored in his ouster. The same was true with Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2001.
Electoral democracies in Asia are fairly young, of course, but one can see a flaw common to all. Asian people enjoy the empowerment of voting their leaders to power, but they are even more enthusiastic about kicking them out—either through the ballot, or extra-constitutionally.
Indira Gandhi’s defeat at the polls in 1977 was the first dramatic proof of this phenomenon in Asia, and South Asia countries particularly enjoy throwing bums out, even when they’re not bums in the least. In 2004, Sri Lankans voted out the party of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, the man who single-handedly brought peace to that tragedy-soaked land. As a result, the ethnic war between the Singhalese and the Tamils is ratcheting up. A month later, Indians chucked out Atal Bihair Vajpayee, whose government presided over India’s accession to the status of economic superpower. East Asian countries have caught the bug. Roh Myu-hoon in South Korea was impeached briefly, damaging his presidency. The opposition in Taiwan is trying to pull down President Chen Shui-bian through street protests. And in the Philippines, many politicians spend all their time thinking of creative ways to destroy the presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Some powerful figures such as former President Fidel Ramos are insisting the constitution be changed—shades of Bangkok—to a parliamentary system, which will enable governments to be dismissed more quickly than under the set terms of a presidential system.
The spoils of power are the most powerfully motivating factor in most cases, but so are voter disappointment, scandals, prime minister- (or President-) fatigue. What Asian democracies lack is the true understanding that a prime minister or president may stink—but the system will eventually replace him.
What Asian democracies lack is the true understanding that a prime minister or president may stink—but the system will eventually replace him.