Sunday 29 December 2013

Getting to the root of Thailand's woes

By Titipol Phakdeewanich, Published The Straits Times, 28 Dec 2013

THAILAND'S politics is again attracting the interest of the international community, with the very survival of Thai democracy increasingly brought into question. There is seemingly no end in sight to Thai political brinksmanship, and the opposition Democrat Party - which retains the support of much of the old-guard establishment - stands by its decision to boycott the general election, scheduled for Feb 2 next year.

Despite the Puea Thai government's determination to ensure that the election will still take place, whether or not the vote can be held remains in question. The People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) - a coalition of Democrat members and anti-government protesters - remains adamant that the current democratic arrangement be suspended and that an unelected "People's Council" assume the role of running the country.

The PDRC has already tried, albeit in vain, to disrupt the electoral process by preventing candidates of political parties from entering the venue for party-list registration in Bangkok. They also plan to disrupt the constituency-based registration across the country when the process begins today. They continue to insist that the networks of patronage relating to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra be dismantled before any election is held.

However, a historical and deeply embedded patronage system continues to permeate Thai society at all levels. It is, therefore, impossible to separate this factor from the corruption that so strongly informs the political character of Thailand today.

Corruption undoubtedly predates any notion of democracy in the country. Yet, there is now a general tendency for Thais to assume that corruption and patronage are a consequence of the existing electoral system. For many Thais, therefore, the integrity of the existing election process remains questionable. And this in turn provides a pretext for those who would attempt to undermine the democratic mandate of the current government.

It is regularly contended that were it not for the inordinate power of key political figures such as Thaksin, Thailand would be able to move forward. But is it realistic that corruption in Thailand - disappointingly ranked 102 out of 177 nations on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2013 - can be effectively remediated through non-democratic means?

The last decade has been a difficult one for Thai democracy. There was a coup in 2006, a constitutional redrafting in 2007, and a series of public protests and crackdowns. Throughout this period, it has been the long disregarded and disaffected majority of Thais from the provinces who have, relatively speaking, retained the most confidence in Thailand's democratic forms.

It is these rural poor who have, to an increasing degree, come to view what passes for democracy as something that can at least begin to respond to their legitimate claims for increased recognition.

Significantly, these are the voters who were historically ignored by an indifferent political elite ensconced primarily in Bangkok. Any significant and tangible response to the situation of the rural poor should understandably be expected to attract a certain loyalty.

This is the context that has provided the recent Thaksin-inspired populist governments with the opportunity to retain a plausible legitimacy and an enduring appeal with the majority of Thais. Accordingly, fresh elections will likely result in another clear endorsement of the Puea Thai party, led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The now highly Thaksin-phobic protesters appear to be aware of this to some extent. Nevertheless, they are prepared to endorse almost any contrivance or ostensible rationale to undermine the established tenets of democracy and representation, in order to see a swift end to the influence of the Shinawatra family in Thai politics.

Ultimately, Thailand's broad societal impasse may demonstrate to the world that its outward show of advancing representative democracy was merely a pretence. The country's assumed status as a democratic standard-bearer for mainland South-east Asia may soon be over as well.

An anonymous onlooker from undemocratic Laos (living close to the Thai border in Savannakhet province) voiced her concern: "I am not sure about democracy because I can see a lot of problems in Thailand from Thai TV. One day "red shirts" (pro-Thaksin supporters), and another day some others come out on the street. So I don't think democracy is good for Laos."

Much of the international community - including the United States and the European Union - has been focusing on a number of specific issues. These include the right to protest, the weakening of voting rights, and the likely impact on foreign investments. Moreover, many foreigners are evidently concerned about how the issue may affect economic prospects throughout the wider region. The recent crisis has coincided with a close to four-year low for the Thai baht against most of the major international currencies.

Although vote-buying still persists as a result of the deep-rooted influence of patronage, it is no longer as decisive a factor in electoral outcomes as it used to be.

Rather, voters have increasingly come to value the importance of holding politicians to account in relation to policy delivery. Farmer Nu Keawmanee, from Ubon Ratchathani province, said: "I like the 30-baht health-care policy because it really helps poor people. So, I want a government that has policies to meet the demands of rural people like me."

She was referring to the universal health-care programme introduced by the Thaksin government in 2002.

In their desperate desire to put an end to Thaksin's influence, his opponents continue to discount the broader reality when making their case. The fact is that the misdeeds of any Thai government have always reflected the inherently anti-democratic patronage system.

This is a historical injustice, which remains largely in place today. It enables those from within the Thai political and business elite to maintain their privileged positions. The failure to deal with this central issue, and instead remain preoccupied with the political fortunes of one man, is to distract attention from a perennial problem of critical importance.

The writer is a political scientist at the Faculty of Political Science, Ubon Ratchathani University, Thailand.

* The Constitutional Court's decision to nullify last month's elections will take Thailand's eight-year-long political squabble to a new level. Two writers look at the implications of the continuing protests for the kingdom.

Thailand's unfolding political tragedy
By Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Published The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2014

NOW that the Thai Constitutional Court has nullified the Feb 2 elections, Thailand is beginning to resemble a train wreck.

The decision to void the election is part of a broader orchestrated effort by Thailand's opposition and watchdog agencies to depose the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and limit the influence of her brother, exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

The conflict between those who advocate electoral democracy - even at the cost of corruption - and those who are bent on unelected rule based on what they see as virtuous moral authority has deepened. Things are likely to get much worse before they get better.

The latest crisis began with the Yingluck government's amnesty Bill last October. The proposed legislation was aimed at exonerating Thaksin, who is under a two-year conviction for corruption. His controversial rule from 2001 until a military coup ousted him in 2006 yielded a mixed legacy. Pro-establishment supporters regard him as a corrupt usurper who manipulated the electoral system to line his own pockets. Rural folk, on the other hand, embraced his populist platform that addressed their long-neglected grievances.

The amnesty gambit broke an uneasy truce after Ms Yingluck had gone out of her way to appease the military, the privy council and other establishment centres of power. But the amnesty debacle led to the re-establishment of the anti-Thaksin coalition, which had been scattered and demoralised as a result of electoral losses in recent years and Ms Yingluck's apparent consolidation of power after winning the July 2011 election.

The anti-Thaksin coalition gained traction through massive protests in the capital, led this time by veteran politician Suthep Thaugsuban of the opposition Democrat Party under the banner of the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC).

When Ms Yingluck responded by calling for fresh elections, thus reducing her own status to that of a caretaker prime minister, the Democrat Party boycotted the election. The PDRC also obstructed some of the polling in Bangkok. The election commission, seen as part of the anti-Thaksin coalition, was also unenthusiastic.

The election was discredited without the participation of the opposition, and was unable to provide a new mandate for the government. The PDRC then ramped up its street-based pressure for the Caretaker Prime Minister to resign. So far, Ms Yingluck has refused. The protesters want to bring about a political vacuum into which an appointed government can be installed to enact reforms that they say are needed to extirpate Thaksin's perceived corrupt influence on Thai politics.

Meanwhile, various watchdog agencies have been making moves designed to put an end to the Yingluck government.

Apart from the election nullification, the National Anti-Corruption Commission is considering charging Ms Yingluck for malfeasance over her government's rice-pledging scheme. Government MPs and some senators have also been charged with violating the Constitution by trying to make the Senate fully elected.

To the government's opponents, the end justifies the means, including blocking off key areas of downtown Bangkok. From the outset, the current movement under the PDRC was and remains a civilian coup by Thailand's electoral minority. They do not deny democracy, but they want to tailor it, keeping it away from what they see as manipulation and corruption by Thaksin. The other side insists on electoral democracy at all costs, even if it benefits the Thaksin regime and its proxies, such as Ms Yingluck. For this side, electoral democracy is fair and just, enabling upcountry voices to be heard and catered to after decades of neglect. They want problems fixed within the political system, not imposed from outside by the military, judiciary or other partisan agencies.

They are not all fond of Thaksin. They are not ignorant of the scourge of corruption either. But their preference is to have democracy first and fix everything that needs fixing thereafter. They are the electoral majority who campaigned for the Feb 2 polls, turning out in huge numbers in the latest and prior elections.

Lurking behind and within these two broad social movements are the Thaksin camp and its foes. Thaksin benefits from electoral democracy because he has won time and again. His opponents benefit from undermining electoral rule and launching anti-corruption crusades against the pro-Thaksin governments to keep him away from Thailand.

It is true that Thaksin has corruption problems and that Ms Yingluck does his bidding. But the situation is shaping up as the third time an elected government will be dislodged by power plays behind the scenes.

The first was a military coup in September 2006. It elicited little resistance because allegations regarding Thaksin's corruption held up in the eyes of most. But when the new military-inspired Constitution in 2007 introduced elections, most of the electorate opted for another Thaksin party.

The newly formed government was then rocked by pro-opposition yellow-shirt protesters that culminated with the occupation of Bangkok's main airport. It was duly deposed by a judicial coup by way of a Constitutional Court decision dissolving the ruling party in December 2008.

The pro-Thaksin red shirts then took to the streets in protest, but were suppressed by the military in 2009 and 2010 until they had their say in Pheu Thai's electoral victory in July 2011.

Thailand is going through a recurrent pattern. The pending ouster of Ms Yingluck is likely to stir up radicalised red-shirt sentiments and bring them back into the streets. Unless a new election is organised in which the Democrat Party runs, Thailand will likely end up with an unelected government. Its legitimacy will be challenged by the international community, and its tenure will be tested by those who demand the right to vote. When the dust clears - and it could take several years - the Thais will have to realise that the starting point of any democracy is the will of the majority. Anything less than that is unlikely to be sustainable.

The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Political Science in Bangkok.

More democracy, not less, the antidote for country's woes
By Songkran GrachangnetaraPublished The Straits Times, 26 Mar 2014

SINCE the end of absolute monarchy in 1932, Thai Constitutions have had an average shelf life of a mere 4.5 years. You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out that Thailand is far from being a mature democracy.

In a landmark ruling on a petition submitted by the Office of the Ombudsman on March 21, the Constitutional Court nullified the Feb 2 general elections.

It is clear Thailand is sailing rudderless towards uncharted political waters. For the first time in our history, it will not be the military staging a coup; instead, there may be what many academics are now calling a "silent coup".

An alliance of independent bodies - the Office of the Ombudsman, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) and the Constitutional Court - is methodically tightening the noose around the neck of the democratically elected Yingluck Shinawatra administration.

After four months of street protests, this government stubbornly refuses to step aside, even though its interim status makes it nothing more than a lame duck administration.

With opposition protests organised by the People's Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) relegated to a small gathering in Lumpini Park, the NACC has unsheathed a dagger.

Last month, the organisation charged Ms Yingluck with dereliction of duty in her role as Premier overseeing the ruinous rice-pledging scheme.

This followed a move in January in which the NACC charged a total of 308 Members of Parliament and senators who supported the Constitution amendment Bill to have senators wholly elected. The Constitutional Court declared the Charter amendment Bill in violation of Sections Three, 68 and 125 of the Constitution.

These two impeachment charges could bring down the elected government and create a political vacuum that in all probability would result in a royally appointed prime minister under the precarious Section Seven of the Thai Constitution.

In the end, however, all political roads will lead to the Constitutional Court. Its annulment of the Feb 2 elections is a near death sentence for Thailand's fledgling democracy because it sets some very disturbing precedents.

First, the court decision is an advertisement to the country's subversive elements that it is open season on Thai democracy. This is because it is now clear that a handful of thugs blocking voting booths can derail a general election.

Second, it rewards law breakers within the PDRC, while punishing 20 million people who wanted to express their democratic will through free and fair polls.

Rulings like this will eat away at the credibility of the Thai justice system. Ultimately we are witnessing a fight to the death between two camps.

On one side are independent bodies such as the Election Commission, NACC and the Constitutional Court, which many observers suspect are covertly championing the cause of Thailand's oldest party, the Democrats.

On the other side is the Puea Thai party and the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship backed by the enormous financial muscle and political savvy of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin's camp claims the will of the people as its ultimate source of legitimacy.

The Democrat camp touts righteousness, the moral high ground and defence of the monarchy as its ordained right to rule.

Both parties have acted disingenuously, cherry-picking segments of the Constitution and political theory in order to support their own agenda.

This eight-year-long political squabble is leading to a constitutional crisis of a type Thailand has never seen before. The impartiality of the Constitutional Court has been openly questioned.

As a Thai citizen, I suffer from the incompetent and deeply corrupt elements of the "Thaksin regime" like everyone else. But democracy must not be sacrificed just so the Democrat Party and its alliance can coast to election victories uncontested and unchallenged.

If we want to rid Thailand of corrupt government, more democracy is required, not less.

If Thais want to live in a just and fair society, more freedom of expression is necessary, not less.

And if the country wants to avoid a constitutional crisis that might bring it closer to civil war, its justice system and independent bodies must demonstrate even more impartiality, not less.

The writer is a Thai businessman and frequent guest columnist for Thailand's largest-circulation English language newspaper, The Bangkok Post.


No comments:

Post a Comment