Democracy and Ochlocracy in Thailand

Perhaps the most cogent and stringent critic of democracy was one of its earliest, Plato:

“For Plato, the demos is the intolerable existence of the great beast which occupies the stage of the political community without ever becoming a single subject. The name which accurately qualifies it is ochlos: the common rabble or, in other words, the infinite turbulence of collections of individuals who are always at odds with themselves, living rent by passion and at the mercy of desire. On the basis of this observation an original duplicity can be defined, a relationship between philosophy and the political which is both thoroughly immanent and radically transcendent, prohibiting the existence of any such thing as ‘political philosophy.'”*

This (rather less well expressed) is at the heart of the position of the PAD and its New Politics Party: the poor people are too uneducated and stupid and greedy to be allowed to vote.

However, Plato was wrong and wrong for several reasons: first, he did not take into account the impact of change and the ability of people to learn; second, the nature of democracy in a modern (and much larger) community does not depend on the ability of individuals to argue with rhetoric against others; third, the desire of the poor (the aporoi, those without means) to achieve liberty (eleutheria) is in fact the principal struggle of human society. Higher levels of goals to be achieved by democracy (i.e. the arete or virtue that is supposed to be desired by those with means (euporoi) may be considered later when people have the basic means of survival in their hands.

This leads to the modern definition of democracy:

“What we mean by democracy is not that we govern ourselves. When we speak or think of ourselves as living in a democracy, what we have in mind is something quite different. It is that our own state, and the government which does so much to organize our lives, draws its legitimacy from us, and that we have a reasonable chance of being able to compel each of them to continue to do so. They draw it, today, from holding regular elections, in which every adult citizen can vote freely and without fear, in which their votes have at least a reasonably equal weight, and in which any uncriminalized political opinion can compete freely for them.”**

In Thailand, of course, the legitimacy of the present government does not come from the mass of the people.

* Jacques Ranciere, On the Shores of Politics (London and New York: Verso, 2007), translated by Liz Heron, p.12.

** John Dunn, Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (London: Atlantic Books, 2006), pp.19-20.

People of Sakon Nakhon Vote for Democracy

The sensational victory in the Sakon Nakhon by-election by Puea Thai is, of course, being presented by the media as the result of a clash of personalities – voters preferred to favour former PM Thaksin over the turncoat Newin Chidchob, whose Bhunjaithai Party has made various promises for building sports grounds and providing ambulance teams for local villages which, it seems, very few people really believed he had any intention of really doing.

Since the focus is on personalities rather than policies, we can expect the next few days or weeks (depending on how soon the next big story comes along) to be dominated by talk of making protests to the Election Commission (EC) about the involvement of Khun Thaksin, who was banned from politics by one of the previous in-no-way directed from above EC decisions. Expect rather fewer stories about the involvement of equally-banned Newin himself.

This all detracts from the real story of this election: the people of Thailand have, once again, voted for democracy. They have seen what happens when a party for which they voted won power (fairly and squarely) and that is what they want. They have also seen what happens to innocent pro-democracy supporters when they are suppressed by state-sanctioned violence (and they also know Newin’s shameful role in that violence) (allegedly). They have voted accordingly.

Will it make any difference? Well, looming on the horizon is the possible downfall of the Abhisit regime as a result of a score or more Ministers and MPs being disqualified by the EC for holding shares in government concessions they are not supposed to hold. 16 senators have already been convicted (not sure if this is a final decision or whether appeals are possible or what, frankly, will happen). There seems to be no chance of the Democrats ruling on their own so either Abhisit will be told to give up the ghost (if the military has its own party ready for the next election) or the evils of money politics will multiply as Abhisit is instructed to cling to power at whatever cost to the country.

Iranian and Thai Democracy

If we compare events in Iran over the last few days with the pro-democracy protests in Thailand, does that tell us anything important or interesting about Thai democracy?

Well, the first point of comparison is to observe that, irrespective of what the real vote counts should be in Iran, it is clear that people will vote for who they want to vote for and who that person or party might be does not always coincide with what state or international interests might like. Most people outside of Iran would, I would think, consider the incumbent Ahmedinajad to be a dangerous demagogue and his nuclear ambitions dangerous – yet there seem to be plenty of people willing to vote for him and to agree with the belief that he offers the best means of survival in a world in which powerful enemies are waiting to strike. In Thailand, the ideology is quite different but the mass of people have repeatedly voted for the parties that would provide redistribution from the rich to the poor. Democracy means that people should be allowed to vote for who they wish.

However, both in Iran and Thailand, it appears to be the case that the will of the people is to be denied. Here of course a military coup and newly installed judges were employed to oust the democratically-elected government and then find pretexts to ban the parties involved altogether so that the military could install a compliant right-wing puppet. In Iran, it appears to be the case that attempts have been made and are being made to prevent the popular vote being recognised – violence is currently being used to suppress the desire for democracy and it is not yet clear what the results will be (apart from inevitable bloodshed).

In both countries, the state authorities have been perfectly willing to use violence to disperse pro-democracy protestors – there seems to be more scrutiny on the Iranian situation (although of course it is a much more secretive and controlled society so access is more limited) and the international media is less willing to accept state-provided pretexts than they were in the case of Thailand.

In both countries, real power is wielded by extra-constitutional figures who prefer to act largely behind the scenes (or sometimes blatantly in public knowing that the media will remain quiescent). In Iran, these figures clothe themselves in religious robes and therefore make themselves immune to criticism – extensive propaganda campaigns are used to promote a state ideology equating religion with patriotism and virtue and aiming to make any dissident considered to be vicious and evil and an ‘enemy of the state.’

The attitude of the USA is different: Iran has suffered from years of persecution by the west and America in particular down to the ill-advised Bush ‘axis of evil’ policy. Part of Iranian voting behaviour may be seen in that context. In Thailand, the US was willing to support (or at least not convincingly condemn) military intervention because of co-operation by the Thai military (allegedly) with extraordinary renditions and torture and because the democratically-elected government was viewed as aiming to become too friendly with China (in reality as a means of diversifying export and production markets).

Reforming the Military

One of the more important steps towards achieving a more democratic state is reducing the influence of the powerful, unelected, opaque interests who are willing and able to act against the wishes of the people (i.e. against a democratically-elected government). One of the most important of these institutions is the military service.

Few independent observers would disagree that the military occupies an unusually high proportion of the budget for a country that fights so few wars, that there is an inordinate proportion of high-ranking officers and that the equipment purchased by the military seems to have little relevance for either its day-to-day activities or its strategic role (e.g. was there ever really a need for an aircraft carrier, especially one that has never been used?). Further, if the military forces are to be used against the people of the country (whether in the southern border region, on the streets of Bangkok or quietly in Isaan or Chiang Mai), then it should be a professional, accountable force which has promised to serve the state and its government. In other words, this means ending the draft.

Concerting the forces to a professional standing would be conducted in conjunction with a thorough, properly independent review of the purpose and scope of the military and restructuring of existing units into formations that can meet the needs of the country and is equipped appropriately. It is clear, for example, that the military needs to be available for a variety of responses on the Burmese border, so there is a need for helicopters and rapidly-deployed and highly-skilled troops. There is a need for the navy to act to protect refugees and treat them according to the law, while being able to act against pirates, illegal fishing boats and the like. Again, helicopters will be required, along with rapid craft and modern navigational and radar and sonar equipment. Other duties might be more sensibly devised in conjunction with ASEAN allies and some key external allies (e.g. the USA and perhaps China).

Simultaneously, an amnesty might be issued for all those military officials who might be found accidentally to be occupying state resources in one form or another. If any money is recovered this way it might be used  to pay for a modern new military service and the need to replace the draft with civilian training and job creation services for those poorer youngsters who are happy to take the draft in order to learn a craft.

However, this is all wishful thinking under the current political settlement.

Is Populism Good?

In answering the question ‘is populism good?’ it  is necessary to ask ‘what is the alternative?’ As discussed yesterday, populism centres on (i.e. it is the most common form of populism that) privileging a poor rural majority over a powerful urban minority of elites. Within a democratic framework, that implies distributing some proportion of the tax revenues (and other state resources) to the benefit of the many rather than the few. This is a proposition for which an enfranchised poor will vote in the absence of a more attractive manifesto. Such an alternative manifesto would divide the rural poor and place some in support of policies benefiting the elite minority. This might be effected through some aspect of ‘culture wars’ or through electoral bribery (i.e. offering sub-sections of the majority extra privileges on the basis of some ethnic or religious characteristic or some other defining aspect). This is a strategy employed in the past by the Republican Party in the USA, in which emphasis was placed upon issues such as anti-abortion or opposition to gay marriage or some other such thing which attracts voters from the majority because of certain underlying factors in national ideology. In Thailand, this might be achieved by persuading voters that the populist party is, for example, irreligious or immoral or anti-monarchist in nature.

Is there somehow something inherently wrong about providing policies for which a majority of people, specifically the poor people, will vote? In the past, such policies included wider enfranchisement, freedom of speech and association, In the present, it relates to low cost healthcare, relief from systemic debt and better opportunities for their children through higher-quality education and employment. From the western, centre-left perspective I hold, these are perfectly reasonable and desirable outcomes.

However, it is possible to have different perspectives. I have written elsewhere of the argument related to ‘mind precedes everything,’ in which Buddhist thought can persuade people that it is the purity of the mind of the person leading an action that is of pre-eminent importance. The act of a person with a pure mind is a good act, therefore, while that same act committed by a person with an impure mind will lead to evil consequences.

It is also possible to differ ideologically and believe that, as the leadership of the PAD believes, that poor people must not be allowed to escape their poverty (perhaps self-inflicted by karmic reasons) nor should they wish to do so.

Thai Exceptionalism

Various recent political controversies have seen the re-emergence of that old phrase, one which will be familiar to all foreigners interested in Thailand and its people: “You don’t understand. Thailand is different.”

Certainly, different countries and their people do differ from each other in noticeable and important ways. For example, climate and geography influence the type of food available to people and that in turn influences what they look like (i.e. tall or short, slight or well-built) and a number of health impacts (e.g. prevalence of diabetes or heart disease). Linguistic differences, meanwhile, influence the way that people think and express themselves and that in turn affects behaviour and philosophy. The weather, on the other hand, determines whether people meet indoors or outdoors and what kind of community relations exist between them. A reasonably long list of such factors could be written, no doubt, although the processes of globalisation (e.g. television and internet shows us how other people live, cheap air travel increases experience and so on) mean that there is some convergence of lifestyles on a regional or global basis: nearly everyone owns a pair of jeans, for example, while mobile phone and personal computer penetration is increasing around the world.

Do these variations actually mean that people and systems are different or are they simply symptomatic of environmental differences? In other words, are things so different in Thailand that foreigners cannot properly ever understand them and, therefore, western-originated institutions such as democracy can never work in the same way in the Land of Smiles as elsewhere?

For ideological reasons I, of course, would strongly dispute this. As a supporter of universal human rights, working rights and equality, my opinion is that these rights should supercede local variations: so, female circumcision should not be permitted since even though it may be sanctioned in some cultures it is nevertheless cruel and abusive and contrary, therefore, to human rights.

However, my opinion is neither here nor there and I might well be wrong, after all. Let us consider whether Thai Exceptionalism (i.e. Thais and Thailand are different) benefits everyone equally or does it serve a specific section of society. Privileging Thai values over human rights, the right of free association or the right to collective bargaining, for example, would benefit whom? Rich or poor equally?

Privileging Thai values over genuine democracy benefits whom? Powerful and weak equally? Those with money and the poor equally?

And, finally, who are the ones who proclaim these Thai differences?  

Bangkok v Thailand

The leading contender for Bangkok governor is incumbent Apirak Kosayodhin, who is the Democrat party candidate. Khun Apirak describes himself as a leading businessperson and observes: ”Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is a good example of how business veterans can use their expertise in city management.’ ‘Curious that the right wing PAD mob consider the current government to be bad because it is run, according to mob ringleaders, by businesspeople but those same people, including super-rich media tycoon Sondhi Limthongkul, close their eyes when their own preferred candidates talk themselves up in the same terms.

Khun Apirak has argued that city-level administration should be in charge of crucial policy areas, including transportation, health care, education and the environment. This is contested by PPP candidate Prapas Chongsa-nguan, who has argued that central government should manage these areas. This is a complex issue and one in which simplistic positions are unlikely to be helpful – modern cities differ in a wide number of ways and decisions on jurisdiction are probably best handled on a case-by-case basis.

Khun Apirak of course wants the position of governor to be as influential as possible since that is his job but there are ideological elements too. Bangkok is a so-called primate city in which government, monarchy, judiciary, executive, business and cultural institutions are all concentrated. Bangkok is not Thailand but it does contain most of what are considered to be the leading institution of the country (although HM the King at the current time is residing at his Hat Yai palace). This means that most income is generated in and retained by Bangkokians in one form or another. Historically, this has meant that Bangkok people have benefited from the money and other resources and have only sparingly shared them with the rest of the country.

It was to overturn this situation, one way or another, that Thai Rak Thai was elected in 2001 and it has been the reassertion of traditionally held power and privilege, mostly acting behind the scenes, that led to the military coup and the support for the right wing PAD mob currently illegally occupying the government compound.

Understandably, perhaps, Bangkokians vote in their own self-interest and that is why it remains dominated politically by the rightist Democrat party. That may well be enough to permit Khun Apirak to keep his job.

Policies Not Personalities – with Thai Characteristics

Former PM, as we must now refer to him, Samak Sundaravej has apparently withdrawn his name for re-nomination and hopes to stand down from leadership of the PPP. This is unfortunate, not for the sake of Khun Samak himself who can be replaced (and whose personal politics are not edifying) but because it represents another blow against the people’s clearly expressed will and gives more heart to the right wing PAD thugs, who will accept nothing less than the disenfranchisement of the rural poor and working classes.

The broad coalition established by Thaksin Shinawatra to enable electoral victory for the Thai Rak Thai party was always going to fray over the course of time – seven years of electoral success is unprecedented in Thailand and unusual for many countries. Initially, it contained policy-makers who had previously supported the Communist movement in the 1970s alongside the domestic capitalist class and representatives of the labour movement. It was inevitable that there would be internal conflict between some of these sectors over the issues of globalization, free trade agreements and privatization, among other issues. That is the very stuff of politics and (thinking optimistically) it represented opportunities for representatives of different sectors to frame their positions logically and clearly and establish new settlements for the mutual benefit of each – this is easily and often unfairly characterised as politicians just being in it for themselves and out for what they can get.

However, it is that coalition which enabled the establishment for the first time ever of a policy platform that was pro-poor and pro-redistribution in nature. It was not perfect but it was better than before and has now become a central part of Thai politics. The central political issue of the day is whether this pro-poor policy position remains in force or will be allowed to dissipate – which is what would happen with a so-called ‘government of national unity’ – or disappear forever, which is what the right-wing PAD mob is committed to achieving.

People come and go – policies are what really matter.  

The Last Decade

Ten years ago, in 1998, Thailand was still struggling with the impact of the financial crisis and what was perceived to be the do-nothing Democrat Party government. Many thousands had lost their jobs and, depending who you believe, were either received in rural heartlands thanks to the outstanding kindness of the Thai people or were forced to suffer under or full unemployment as an alternative to entering risk-taking labour – or some of both, of course.

Thailand had never had a democratically-elected government which had either ruled on its own or served a full term. Money and personality patronage politics dominated the country and the elite interests maintained a strict hand on who would be permitted to taste any amount of actual power. Economic development, based on low-labour cost manufacturing and export-oriented growth had permitted the argument that ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’ even when it was demonstrably clear it was doing no such thing but was ensuring a constant supply of new workers willing to work in factories and maintaining downward pressure on wages.

Apart from a few small parties, there was next to no ideological content in the manifestoes offered by the leading parties and it was difficult to fit a cigarette paper between any of them when it came to substantive issues.

Much of this has changed in the last decade and while it has not all been wonderful, some of those changes are certainly worth celebrating. Irrespective of opinions about Thai Rak Thai, it is indisputable that the electoral success of the party (and the very broad coalition that initially sustained it) has changed the grounds on which parties can be elected (when elections are permitted, that is). The pro-poor and redistributive elements of Thai Rak Thai have now become the centre ground over which ideological arguments rage – the quality of the discourse is still generally low but it is possible to improve it. Increased and identifiable ideological positions are the best way to reduce the influence of money politics and vote buying.

The rural poor have been given a stake in the future of the country and seem determined to keep it, if they are permitted to do so by the same elite interests whose grasp on the throat of power has been reinforced by certain recent events.

Poverty continues to be reduced and more and more poor people have the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families – not all will be able to take those opportunities of course but they should still be provided. The sky has not fallen as a result.