HONG KONG — Thailand’s “democracy” is in limbo. Judges of the country’s three top courts have decided that April’s elections were unconstitutional, and new ones must be held. The Election Commission set October for new elections, but the judges said the commission has no power to set the date and its members must resign, which they have refused to do.
Meanwhile, Thaksin Shinawatra, the billionaire tycoon at the center of the storm of allegations that he hijacked democracy, has quietly resumed his job as caretaker prime minister, only days after telling off reporters for bothering him, an unemployed man.
Thaksin is hardly the first or the only “strongman” ruler strutting the stage in Asia. Sukarno, and after him Suharto, in Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines indeed set a pattern. If you extend the definition of a strong ruler to include a party monopoly, then most of the Asian region from Myanmar (also known as Burma) through China follows the tradition of a strong executive government.
Perhaps Thaksin and Thailand have a role to play in illustrating the flaws of this kind of rule precisely because the Thai leader overreached himself.
Thaksin epitomizes the promises that such rulers offer. The chief executive ruler boasts that he can “get things done,” can promote a modern agenda and swiftly lift up the economy. In Thaksin’s case, his successful business empire, albeit one based on privilege, licenses and monopoly, added to his appeal as a new broom, who would sweep away the old cobwebbed ways. Such an appeal to efficiency resonates way beyond Southeast Asia. Tony Blair, who invented “New Labour” as British prime minister, and before him Margaret Thatcher, offered many of the same kind of promises of modernizing a country that suffered from tired bureaucratic procedures and costly taxation.
It may not be an accident that all of them, and indeed another Asian strong ruler, Indira Gandhi, shared a common reluctance to waste time debating issues before Parliament. We have the mandate of the people, such rulers say, so let’s get on with the job.
Thaksin’s reluctance to debate with Parliament bordered on contempt — which is why it is deeply ironic that his solution to shut up the demonstrators complaining about his family’s controversial $1.9 billion tax-free sale of its Shin business empire to Temasek was to call for elections to the same Parliament that he had virtually ignored.
Political commentators noted that Thaksin used his Cabinet merely as a rubber stamp. He also declared that important policy measures, such as the plethora of free-trade agreements under negotiation, were a matter for his decision and did not concern Parliament.
One of the lessons of Thaksin’s behavior is that relying on elections alone can be deeply undemocratic, especially when a strong ruler uses the considerable means at his disposal to ensure victory. All rulers will exploit any loopholes they can. But in countries with a longer tradition of democracy, for example Italy, there are safeguards and neutral agencies to see that the election is fair and free.
In Asia, and throughout the developing world, strong executive rulers try to hold as many of the organs of state in their anaconda embrace. The media is obviously a key target, since a tame media prevents the government from getting its propaganda disseminated as truth. Election commissions and judges are encouraged to be sympathetic to the government.
Even in a small and generally well-run state like Singapore, governments admit that oppositions are troublesome. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong let slip that it would be tiresome to have more opposition members in Parliament, since he would have to waste time to “fix” them. Singapore’s ruling party has used carrots and sticks to win the loyalty of voters, such as quick renewal of facilities of housing estates that vote for the government and a more tardy process for constituencies that elect an opposition member.
In sprawling countries like Thailand, abuse of the election process is blatant. Money plays a huge role. In some places like India, voters are sophisticated enough to take money and then use the secret ballot to vote for whomever they want. In other countries, too, voters sometimes have a cussed streak to vote against a ruler whose ostentation or wealth or power displeases them.
But Thailand is rather feudal and Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party has turned money politics into an art form, handing out largess — not to the ordinary villagers in direct payment for their votes, but to the headman on condition that he delivers the votes.
For months before he called this year’s annulled election, Thaksin was constantly touring the country in what amounted to a perpetual election campaign handing out goodies to the people.
Dictators and governments that want to get on with the job sing the song that elections are not always helpful to democracy. French philosophers long ago derided elections as a single day of freedom once every four or five years. They were right — since the essential point of democracy is that it must be a continual process.
This means democracy has to involve a free press that can encourage discussion and debate on the leading issues of the day, and a national assembly that is brave enough to pick holes in the executive’s grand plans.
Amartya Sen, 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, underlined the importance of public discussion in formulating and moderating policy, a note that Blair and others would have done well to think about before rushing to war against Iraq or using their parliamentary majorities to push half-baked measures into law.
In his book “The Argumentative Indian,” Sen puts the place of an election into the right perspective: “Balloting can be seen as only one of the ways — albeit a very important way — to make public discussions effective, when the opportunity to vote is combined with the opportunity to speak and listen, without fear.”
Sen also shows that traditions of democratic public discussion are not an exclusive Western contribution to political philosophy. In Japan in 604, Prince Shokotu, regent to his mother Empress Suiko, introduced a liberal constitution that declared: “Decisions on important matters should not be made by one person alone. They should be discussed with many.”
Thaksin, on the other hand, is the embodiment of the idea that one strong executive ruler can make all the difference. It was a simplistic idea when countries and economies were static and little changing; it is a dangerous one now when societies are going through kaleidoscopic changes and no country — not even the almighty United States — can act without considering the widest implications of its policies.
When it comes to domestic business, economic and financial matters, it is essential for developing countries to develop democratic organs that allow comment and feedback and, thus, improvement of new policies. Otherwise, at best, strong rulers may develop policies that benefit their own special-interest groups and policies may fail because they have not been tested properly.
These dangerous tendencies were exemplified in Thaksin. The prime minister had a whirlwind of good ideas, such as the 30 baht ($0.75) health scheme and a plan to boost the economy through domestic consumption, without considering the costs and the increasing indebtedness that have gone with such policies. Political commentators have noted the growth of crony capitalism in Thailand with a small number of well-connected business families cashing in on government policies.
In Thaksin’s case, his ubiquitous presence also leads to the question whether he has an exit strategy. Where there is little democracy, easing a leader out becomes more problematic. The fact that Thaksin also owns a controversial business fortune adds to the complications, as an army of potential opponents is likely to pursue him and his family for alleged ill-gotten gains.
Where a leader clings on, as Marcos did in the Philippines, economic development may be set back by a generation or more as vendettas are pursued.
Before Marcos took over, Thailand’s economy was slightly poorer than that of the Philippines; today Thailand is twice as big, with per capita income of $2,190 against $1,080 in the Philippines. In some critical indicators, including the quality of education, scientific skills and ability to speak English, Thailand still lags the Philippines. Rural folk may rejoice at Thaksin’s handouts, but the prime minister has done precious little to bring a lasting improvement in the quality of Thai rural life.
The danger is that Thailand becomes polarized over Thaksin and its development is set back by a generation or more.
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