Fostering norms to sustain Thailand's democracy

Fostering norms to sustain Thailand's democracy

With the next election tentatively scheduled for February 2019, it is not long before Thailand returns to democracy. And while many in the country are excited about the prospect of an election, others are weary of reverting to politics as usual.

When asked why, those weary of democracy will say that democracy in Thailand is too messy and breeds chaos. In particular, the last two decades has seen the country go through a vicious cycle of government scandals, protests, instability and coups. Indeed, Thailand has the dubious honour of being the most coup-prone country in the world, with coup attempts almost as frequent as elections.

It's a pretty clear sign that democracy in Thailand has not been sustainable.

But we cannot postpone the next election forever, and eventually Thailand must re-democratise. We must begin to consider how the country can avoid returning to the vicious cycle of the past. Namely, how can we ensure that democracy will finally take root and flourish in Thailand?

A recently released book, How Democracies Die by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, discusses how modern democracies fail. It is a timely book for an age of unprecedented challenges to liberal democracy throughout the world, and while its focus is on the United States, its lessons are also valuable when applied to a Thai context.

Prof Levitsky and Prof Ziblatt's main argument is that two unwritten norms are crucial to maintaining a democracy, and that violating them too often inevitably leads to democracy's decline.

The first norm is mutual tolerance, which is "the understanding that competing parties accept one another as legitimate rivals". If parties begin to perceive that their opponents are not simply citizens with different views, but instead are traitorous enemies, then democracy cannot be sustained as opposing political parties no longer tolerate each other and are willing to stop at nothing to eliminate one another.

In the US, both Republicans and Democrats now have a hard time accepting each other; President Donald Trump, for example, questioned the citizenship of former president Barack Obama, and threatened to imprison Hillary Clinton. Similarly, for a long time, mutual tolerance has run low in Thailand, with protesters on the streets from across the political spectrum taking turns to demonise the sitting government and vowing to destroy one another. Social media bubbles have ensured Thais rarely need to be exposed to opinions other than ones from like-minded sources.

The second norm is institutional forbearance, which is "the idea that politicians should exercise restraint in deploying their institutional prerogatives". This means that the party in power must refrain from consistently playing hardball and abusing the powers of elected office for maximum advantage.

American politicians have rarely shown forbearance in recent years; take, for example, unprecedented obstruction in Congress, including the blocking of the appointment of a Supreme Court justice, and excessive use of executive orders. In Thailand, politicians have also shown little restraint in using institutional prerogatives. The attempt to ram the Amnesty Bill through parliament in the dead of night in 2013 was a clear example of this. Widespread corruption also demonstrates the lack of restraint of politicians.

It would be easy to start finger-pointing and blaming one side or another for causing these unwritten norms to deteriorate, which then brought democracy down. But that is not the point. When partisans are in a constant state of extreme animosity and polarisation, and when they cannot resist the temptation to abuse their parliamentary majorities and the powers of their offices, democracy is not sustainable. And once democracy breaks down, this creates an opening for military interventions, leading to a never-ending vicious cycle.

Of course, these norms that Prof Ziblatt and Prof Levitsky propose are integral to American democracy are not the only reasons for why Thailand's democracy is so fragile. But they are also key reasons for why we cannot sustain democracy here for more than a few years at a time.

Therefore, it is imperative that we begin the task of fostering these norms so that Thailand's democracy can survive. If our future elected leaders want to avoid another coup from happening, they must find ways to nurture the process of reconciliation, reduce polarisation and avoid the temptations of playing hardball. Citizens must also be willing to defend democratic institutions and to accept the validity of a spectrum of political perspectives. For Thailand to achieve greater levels of economic development and political stability, to remain in our vicious cycle is untenable.

Ken Lohatepanont is studying political science at the University of California, Berkeley.

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