Let’s admit this is not democracy

Let’s admit this is not democracy

For decades we have been telling ourselves we are a democracy. We tell our people that elections mean we are a democracy. This is hammered home repeatedly. Consequently, we tell the world we are a democracy. But in reality, we are not. We have never been. We want it, but we don’t have it.

Since 1932, we have gone through the same repetitive process of governments being elected and then toppled, charters ripped up and rewritten. It wasn’t about democracy. It was about traditional vested interests.

As we developed economically from the 1980s, demands for a greater say in how we are governed emerged and intensified. The traditional elite, the bureaucracy, politicians and business had to listen. And the only time where there was a determined effort to let the people have their say was in the drafting of the 1997 charter. But that’s as far as it went.

Enter Thaksin Shinawatra and Thai Rak Thai. He made promises to the voters and delivered. And with successive populist policies he endeared himself to voters who repeatedly supported him, no matter how many times he had to change the name of his party and despite the 2006 coup that ousted him. Love him or hate him, the fact is rural Thailand has discovered their voice; that their vote counts.

But make no mistake, Thaksin is no democrat. Like other politicians and parties he used patronage — deeply ingrained in virtually all segments of Thai society — to his advantage. He ran Thailand like a company and took cronyism to a higher level than those before him.

His party’s steadfast adherence to majority rule, completely ignoring the voices of the minority, clearly illustrates the lack of understanding of the democratic process. But Thaksin is not solely to blame for the recent protracted political impasses that prompted the coup.

Over the past decade the Democrats failed dismally to reform themselves as an alternative to Thaksin. After 2010, Pheu Thai and the Democrats played politics of the extreme, virtually pushing the middle to choose sides and further aggravating the political divide.

The Democrats were right to oppose the amnesty bill. But Suthep Thaugsuban strayed from the democratic path in the way and manner in which he attempted to “Restart Thailand”. Worse, the Democrat leadership, especially Abhisit Vejjajiva, failed to provide leadership in telling Mr Suthep: “No, this is not the way.” And like Pheu Thai, the Democrats took the political fight from parliament to the streets. Sadly, we have no political leadership among any of the political parties.

So where do we go from here?

Since the coup, I have heard many comments from a number of people asking whether Thais are ready for democracy and whether Thais (especially those upcountry) truly understand what it means. There have been suggestions, for example, that candidates for elected MPs should only come from the “knowledgeable and educated”. Another is that only taxpayers should be allowed to vote, or that voters should at least be given a test on what democracy means before they are allowed to vote.

These comments reinforce my view that for a start we should be honest with ourselves and admit that we are not yet a democracy. Let’s admit that we will never have a democracy like countries in the West. There’s nothing wrong with that since our history, our culture and our traditions are different.

Can we admit that we are still finding our way towards a form of democratic governance that allows the people, stakeholders, each political group and vested interests to have their space and be involved in the running of the country?

Even if it means adopting, for example, a system where all senators are appointed and seats allocated to the military and bureaucracy in which places are filled by rotation, then so be it. This does not mean that a fully appointed Senate should supersede the elected representatives of the people. This idea may run counter to the democratic principle of elected senators, but past experience has shown that the bureaucracy and the military have and will play a role in governance.

Let’s be honest — is this democratic? No, it is not. But unless we find a political structure that allows all stakeholders their space and say in governance, we will once again be back to where we were before.

Pichai Chuensuksawadi is Editor-in-Chief of Post Publishing, contact him at pichai@bangkokpost.co.th.

Pichai Chuensuksawadi

Editor-in-Chief & Bangkok Post Editor

He is an Editor-in-Chief at Post Publishing Public. He also served as Editor at The Post Publishing Plc from 1994 to 2002 and Special Assistant to the ASEAN Secretary General Dato'Ajit Singh from 1993 to 1994. He serves as the Chairman of The Bangkok Post Provident Fund. He is Chairman of The Bangkok Post Foundation and Phud Hong Leper Foundation. He is a Member of The Press Council of Thailand. He is a Board Member of IFRA. He is Chairman of the Organising Committee, IFRA Asia Pacific. He has BA in Journalism from Queensland University, Australia in 1979 and BA. Political Science from James Cook University of North Queensland University, Australia in 1976.

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