Democratic system more than just popular vote
This is not a democracy
published : 30 Mar 2019 at 04:00
newspaper section: News
writer: Ken Lohatepanont
Sontirat Sontijirawong, the secretary-general of the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), recently complained about the media labelling different parties either as "pro-democracy" or "pro-dictatorship". The PPRP, Mr Sontirat argued, ran in a democratic election and won around eight million votes and, as such, the PPRP is as much pro-democracy as any other party.
Running in an election is indeed a part of democracy. But it is not the only part. Thaksin Shinawatra and his allies were severely criticised for eroding the democratic system by engaging in acts such as pressuring the judicial system, meddling in the supposedly impartial bureaucracy, the purchase of ITV, and human rights abuses. These are only some examples of Thaksin's authoritarian tendencies.
Indeed, a key argument that the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) used a couple of years ago was that Yingluck Shinawatra's government embodied a "parliamentary dictatorship" that may have won elections but did not respect the rights of the minority. However, if we charge that Thaksin is not a democrat because he did not respect the democratic processes despite winning elections, it would be hypocritical not to accuse the military regime, and by extension the PPRP, of the same. The PPRP did indeed run in an election, but this is insufficient to argue that the PPRP is pro-democracy for two key reasons.
Firstly, the PPRP has been the beneficiary of an election that was neither free or fair.
Robert Dahl, a political scientist, outlined seven "procedural minimums" that are required for a democracy to exist. One of them is that "elected officials are chosen frequently in fairly conducted elections in which coercion is comparatively uncommon".
Anfrel, the independent election monitor, wrote that it saw "a campaign environment which was heavily tilted to benefit the incumbent military junta and the candidates that it supports". Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak told CNN that "people were free to vote, but the choices were limited under a manipulated system which curtailed freedom".
The PPRP may indeed have won the popular vote -- but it won as a result of electoral conditions from which it unfairly benefited. Cambodia's Hun Sen and Russia's Vladimir Putin have also won elections but no one believes them when they claim a democratic mandate.
Secondly, the PPRP is running to extend an undemocratic system of government that was enshrined in the 2017 constitution.
Political scientists Philippe Schmitter and Terry Karl extended Mr Dahl's procedural minimums with another condition: that "popularly elected officials must be able to exercise their constitutional powers without being subjected to overriding opposition from unelected officials".
This condition is violated by many of the 2017 constitution's provisions such as the case of 250 senators being appointed by the NCPO, which can obstruct the elected lower house's choice of prime minister. Moreover, the sitting government can be impeached if it does not follow a 20-year national strategy drafted by the junta. This means that elected officials are ultimately at the mercy of the military government's appointees.
And indeed, this obstruction of democracy may happen very soon. The Pheu Thai has tried to cobble together a coalition that should give it a majority, albeit a razor-thin one, in the House of Representatives. However, the PPRP remains confident that it can lead the next government. We can only suspect that this confidence is a result of their belief in the upper house, which Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, who chaired a committee on selection of the senate, has stated is "controllable".
Many, including myself, are not excited to see another Pheu Thai government, given its past excesses and corruption scandals. But for Thailand to move forward, we must build a sustainable democracy that can be respected by all. This includes respecting the norms of the Westminster parliamentary system, which by tradition allows the party that has won the most seats to have the first try at building a coalition.
The PPRP may have won the popular vote, but it emerged victorious in a flawed election tilted towards itself. Ultimately, it will only prolong the continuation of a semi-authoritarian regime. While it demands that its 8.4 million votes be respected, it is unwilling to recognise the over 15 million votes that went to parties explicitly opposed to the junta. The PPRP argued that choosing it meant choosing peace, but how can we have true peace if we circumvent democracy and blatantly ignore the majority?
Democracy is not just about winning the popular vote. It is about respecting the rule of law, ensuring accountability and empowering officials elected by the people.
Ken Lohatepanont is studying political science at the University of California, Berkeley.