Democracy is a public virtue but it is not the only one

Democracy is a public virtue but it is not the only one

Almost 20 years ago, noted editor Fareed Zakaria published a piece entitled "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy" in the journal Foreign Affairs. In this analysis Zakaria made several important observations about how some democratically elected regimes have often ignored the constitutional limits on their power and deprived their citizens of basic rights and freedoms. In his account of the development of democracy and constitutional liberalism, Zakaria takes us through a number of thought-provoking notions, in particular, how Western liberal democracy is but one of many models of democratic rule, that democracy is one public virtue but not the only one, and that it is faulty to assume that democracy will imply good governance. He concludes the analysis by stating: “Woodrow Wilson took America into the 20th century with a challenge, to make the world safe for democracy. As we approach the next century, our task is to make democracy safe for the world.”

We are in the 16th year of this new century and Zakaria’s comments are, to me, as pertinent now as they were then, especially for countries undergoing substantive reforms. But the spark that has ignited my revisit to "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy" has been the recent reactions made by many Thai politicians about the draft constitution. Upon the release of this draft, both sides of the Thai political landscape have come out to denounce its merits. Their grievances seem to originate from how the draft charter proposes to limit the role and dominance of political parties. This is not surprising since they stand to lose out the most should their political powers be clipped. But it is important to remind ourselves of the events that transpired almost two years ago when the very same politicians refused to compromise with each other and thereby failed to find a way out of our political crisis despite given the opportunity to do so. It seems that many of us have forgotten that on May 20, 2014, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, in his capacity as army chief, arranged crisis talks between all the political rivals but, as we can recall, those attending refused to negotiate their differences. Today, given such reactions to the new draft, I am prompted to ask if Thailand’s political landscape will ever break free from our politicians that maintain a "winner takes all" standpoint.

Perhaps the real question should be not what the political parties want from the constitution, but what the Thai people want. In the upcoming weeks, the Constitution Drafting Committee intends to go around the country to explain the new draft directly to the people. Why not let them do their work first and see what the people have to say about the new draft once it has been explained to them? Our politicians are not the sole gatekeepers of our democratic system, and as Zakaria has mentioned, democracy is only one of several public virtues. Economic, civil and religious liberties along with equality under the law, not to mention checks and balances on power, are just as important. Thailand’s recent history with democracy, in many ways, reflects another point made by the same author, which is that the tendency for a democratic government to believe it has absolute power can result in the centralisation of authority, often by extra constitutional means and with grim results. Our problem has not been democracy, but rather its abuse. Given this, don’t we deserve the chance to try another framework of representative government like the mixed-member proportional representation system? Many other countries, both in the West and the East, have employed this model and their politicians have learned to live with it.

But rather than simply equate the new constitution with what kind of electoral system we should have, it would be better if all Thai citizens can join together in a civil debate about how the constitution should address the previous political problems that have shackled Thailand for too long, as well as the issues of basic liberties, good governance and the rule of law. As experiences in other countries have shown, without a serious debate on these other public virtues, the introduction of democracy to divided societies can exacerbate social conflict rather than prevent it. On that note, I recall a comment made by a senior adviser to the government who, at a meeting with foreign envoys, brought up a quote by the Pulitzer Prize winning writer Will Durant who said: “In my youth I stressed freedom, and in my old age I stress order. I have made the great discovery that liberty is a product of order.” The Thai people have reached an important juncture for determining the country’s political future. We have arrived at this point because order has been restored. From here we should not squander this opportunity to create a viable democratic system for Thailand. As to what factors will make the new system viable, from my viewpoint, we should first look carefully at the symbol of our constitution as part of the Democracy Monument. There is a constitution as a document placed on a Thai pedesta or paan. The document symbolises the highest laws of the country, which are thereby acknowledged internationally. The pedestal is a symbol of Thai culture and identity and thus represents the ideals of the Thai people. For Thailand to have a constitution that is ultimately based on the will of the Thai people, let me borrow from Zakaria once again and ask, what is the balance between making Thailand ready for democracy and making democracy safe for Thailand?

Maj Gen Werachon Sukondhapatipak is a deputy government spokesman.

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