The Thai Malaise

The current political standoff in Thailand is a symptom of deeper problems that can't be solved by watering down democratic process.

Rufus Cox/Getty Images
Rufus Cox/Getty Images

On Feb. 2, the day of Thailand’s general election, untouched ballot boxes were laid out like rows of gravestones in Bangkok’s Rajathewi district office, while more than 100 self-proclaimed pro-democracy protestors, many of them middle-aged women from southern provinces hundreds of miles away, blew whistles and cheered. They were celebrating their success in preventing the voting from taking place. Shortly after 8:30 a.m., they rose up en masse and left the government compound, padlocking the gates on their way out. Outside they held a party on the main street, which they had closed for the occasion. The Royal Thai Police were nowhere to be seen, and a small group of soldiers stood passively by, snapping the padlocking ritual on their iPhones.

Back in November, the opposition Democrat Party demanded the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, but once Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra — who still had 18 months of her term left — called a snap election for Feb. 2, it soon became clear that the Democrats were refusing to play ball.

The Democrats, Thailand’s oldest political party, have transformed themselves into the kind of protest movement their leaders had always professed to despise. Not only did the party boycott the election, but it also backed moves to disrupt the polls by the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) (an anti-government protest movement led by former Democrat Secretary-General and Deputy Premier Suthep Thueksuban), which announced plans to shut down Bangkok from Jan. 13 on, blocking key intersections across the city. Protesters continue to hold the city hostage. Most recently, on the morning on Feb. 18, three protesters were shot and 64 injured as police attempted to break up the demonstration.

After preventing advance polling across much of Bangkok and the south on Jan. 26 — during which one protest leader was shot dead — protestors followed a prominent Buddhist monk into a violent altercation with pro-government groups in the Bangkok district of Lak Si on Feb. 1. Soon after the election, the Democrats announced that they were bringing legal action against the Yingluck government for pressing ahead with an "illegitimate" election. For the Democrats, any election won by parties linked to the demonized former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was inherently illegitimate, however convincing the margin of victory.

Meanwhile, media outlets sympathetic to the opposition, including the respected Bangkok Post, ran articles suggesting, without any apparent irony, that the relatively low turnout and the high number of "no" votes (in Thai elections, voters can tick a box saying they reject all the candidates on the ballot) proved that the ruling party had performed poorly. The opposition’s approach was: "Let’s do everything we can to sabotage the election, including using violence, and then blame the ruling party for making a hash of it."

Voter turnout for the Feb. 2 general election was just under 48 percent overall (compared to 75 percent in the 2011 election), not bad considering that voting was virtually impossible in several southern provinces where the opposition was able to shut down the electoral process. The controversial military-backed referendum to approve the 2007 constitution secured a comparable turnout of just under 57 percent. Overall, nearly 75 percent of those who voted in 2014 supported the government. Split ballots and "no" votes were up compared to the most recent elections.

As Thailand’s leading political blogger, Bangkok Pundit, noted, a more useful comparison might be to the 2006 snap election called under similar circumstances by Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, during his time as prime minister. Democrats boycotted the 2006 poll as well, but actively campaigned for a "no" vote. As a result, nearly a third voted "no" — compared to the mere 17 percent that did in 2014. There is no solid basis for assuming that most of those who failed to vote, or who cast "no" votes, in a boycotted and violently disrupted general election, were people who would otherwise have voted for the Democrat Party — though some were certainly disappointed by lackluster local members of parliament from the ruling party.

What the Feb. 2 elections most clearly illustrate is the growing political chasm that separates greater Bangkok and the country’s south from its less affluent but more populous regions in the north and northeast. The latter have long been strongholds of support for Yingluck and Thaksin, who was elected largely because of his appeals to urbanized villagers, Thais with rural origins who dream of making it to middle-class standards of living. Because of Thailand’s hidden "caste system" — which is linked to popular Buddhist notions that the poor deserve their lower status because of accumulated demerits from previous lives — Bangkokians typically have a profoundly paternalistic view of the masses. Thaksin’s populist, can-do message, the stuff of self-help books, resonated deeply with many voters in the north and northeast. The leaders of the current anti-government protests — many of whom come from Bangkok — constantly deride these voters as ignorant and susceptible to electoral manipulation and vote-buying. Worse still, these anti-government protesters accuse pro-Thaksin voters of disloyalty to the Thai nation and the monarchy. On Jan. 26, I heard one rally speaker declare that those who had taken part in advance voting did not really love Thailand, and were probably in fact Cambodians casting fake ballots.

How did Thailand reach this sorry state of affairs? Pro-Thaksin parties have won six successive general elections since 2001, while the opposition Democrats have failed to win a convincing election victory in almost 30 years. The conservative establishment, comprising the Democrats, the military, the network monarchy, and the judiciary, have made numerous failed attempts to drive a stake through the heart of this controversial politician: a military coup, election annulment, party dissolution (twice), and criminal conviction on corruption-related charges. Because he faces a two-year jail term, Thaksin has not set foot in Thailand for nearly six years, yet he remains the single most important non-royal Thai by far. If you just listen to the vitriolic, nauseating rhetoric at the nightly anti-government rallies at multiple locations around Bangkok, you would think Thaksin and his sister were the country’s biggest political problems. In fact, Thailand faces two huge parallel challenges, neither of which is of Thaksin’s making:

The first challenge is national anxiety about the country’s future. Rama 9, King Bhumibol, the world’s longest serving monarch, is now 86 years old. Who will succeed him, and what will happen as a result, is the focus of endless gossip among Thais. A lot of the protestors’ anti-Thaksin sentiment reflects their view that the influential former premier must not have any hand in managing the delicate succession process.

The second challenge, seen in attempts to disrupt voting in Bangkok and elsewhere, concerns the logic of electoral politics. Now that voters in the north and northeast have been mobilized to vote as a bloc, the Bangkok middle classes and their southern allies face the real prospect that they will never again choose a government to their liking. Thailand has moved into a phase of majoritarianism, in which pro-Thaksin governments will be able to run the country with virtual impunity for the foreseeable future. Affluent Bangkokians have finally grasped the logic of electoral democracy: they are permanently outnumbered by the rural masses.

The PDRC is right about one thing: reform is urgently needed in Thailand to reduce political partisanship and break the constant cycle of mass protests. But any reform process that moves away from popular voting — towards some Hong Kong-style electoral system based on occupational groups, for example, as is apparently implied by the PDRC’s loose talk of a "people’s assembly" — will only exacerbate the country’s class tensions. Reform means dismantling the informal caste system, reducing psychological dependence on the monarchy, and growing an appreciation for the capacity of the rural population to contribute to their democracy. The latest general election, though a partial boost for the Yingluck administration, has also failed to deflate the protests. Thailand already has liberty in abundance, and a fair bit of fraternity. Creating more equality is the next step.

Duncan McCargo is the director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen. He is the co-author of Future Forward: The Rise and Fall of a Thai Political Party.

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