LONDON — Democracy is fine as long as the voters elect the right people, but they often get it wrong. The Palestinians elected Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, so the Israelis and their allies overseas have to persuade them of the error of their ways with bombs, bullets and a financial blockade. And in Thailand they were going to vote for Thaksin Shinawatra again.
“They” were the rural poor, still a majority in Thailand, who have been left behind by the economic miracle of the past 20 years. They elected the billionaire Thaksin three times in a row because he gave them cheap health care and put money in their pockets. The Bangkok middle class despised him for his populism and his corruption, but the poor were almost certainly going to elect him again — so for the first time in 15 years, the Thai Army rolled its tanks into Bangkok.
So much for Thai democracy — and the bizarre thing is that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. There have been no thunderous denunciations of the military junta — sorry, the Administrative Reform Council — that now runs Thailand, just murmurs of regret in Washington, London, Paris and Tokyo that it has come to this. There will be no sanctions, no boycott of the military regime (which promises to hand back power to an elected government within a year, but only after rewriting the constitution), no vigils for democracy.
Thaksin was no advertisement for the wisdom of Thai voters. It was the poor and the ill-educated who voted for him, and he won their support with cynically populist policies. He launched a “war on drugs” that saw three thousand cases of extra-judicial execution — officially sanctioned murders, in other words. He took a needlessly hard line on discontent among Thailand’s Muslim minority, concentrated in the southernmost provinces, that turned disaffection into open insurrection. He even hid the first outbreak of bird flu in Thailand in an attempt to protect Thai poultry exports.
He gave cash presents to village headmen who could deliver the local vote. He appointed a large number of his own supporters to the senate, and then used his majority there to appoint cronies to the higher courts. He pushed relatives and friends into senior positions in the police and the military. He abused and undermined the democratic order in a hundred different ways. He was a southeast Asian Silvio Berlusconi.
However, Thaksin also did things that improved the lot of the poor: a moratorium on farmer’s debts, dollar-a-visit medical care even for the impoverished northeast of Thailand, village improvement schemes that actually raised farmers’ incomes. He was a liar and a crook, but a majority of Thais voted for him in election after election. And they would have voted for him again if the army hadn’t intervened.
The middle class people of Bangkok who have been demonstrating against Thaksin for the past six months are right: you really can’t run a country like this for very long and stay democratic. Either the demagogue consolidates his power and becomes a de facto dictator, or he is driven out by people who have (or claim to have) the interests of democracy at heart.
It is a tragedy that Thailand has had a military coup, but it is not really a surprise. The thing about Thailand, and all the other Asian countries like Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea that have had non-violent transfers of power to democratically elected governments in the past 20 years, is that the transfer needs at least a generation to become irreversible.
Thailand had 17 military coups between 1932, when the constitutional monarchy was established, and 1991-92. But it has actually done better than the Philippines, which had a non-violent “people power” revolution in 1986 but has since had frequent coup alarms, a (democratically elected) general in power for six years, and a demagogue elected by the poor (Joseph Estrada) who was overthrown by the Manila middle class in the so-called “cell-phone revolution.” The Thai military really will hand power back, whereas in the Philippines they have never really let it go
Until last week, Thailand seemed to be doing as well as other Asian countries that first became democratic in the same era. But for all these countries, and for dozens of others in Africa and Latin America, democracy is hard not only because it is new, but because the old elites have not really relinquished their power. They have just consented, grudgingly, to share it.
Thaksin was a democratic disaster, but it was the old elites, allied to the new urban middle class, who drove him out. They are not without sin, for it was their neglect of the rural majority that gave Thaksin his opportunity.
The coup sets the clock back: it will be another 14 years before Thailand seems as safely distant from the bad old days as it did until this week. Even if the soldiers keep their promises, it is a shame and a defeat for Thailand. But the glass is still half-full, not half-empty. Asia, apart from China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Pakistan, is still a democratic continent. Twenty-five years ago, nobody would have predicted that.