Protesters in Thailand are demanding the end of electoral democracy, saying it is a dictatorship by the majority that came to power buying votes and is ruling the country through corruption. They are calling for a rule instead by “moral” people whom they would select without a popular election. They represent a threat to Thai democracy that remains fragile after a decade of turmoil.
The protests, which began in late November, are only one battle in Thailand’s protracted political struggle since the violent protests of 2006 that ended with a military coup. As in 2006, most of today’s protesters are wealthy and educated elites in Bangkok and supporters of the Democrat Party, the main opposition in Thailand’s parliamentary system.
Earlier this month, the protesters stormed into and occupied government offices and police headquarters for a few days, hoping that the chaos would lead to a violent crackdown, forcing a military or royal intervention to establish rule by handpicked “uncorrupt” people. But the government avoided confrontation and allowed the protesters to occupy state offices. On Dec. 8, when violent confrontation seemed unavoidable, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the parliament and called for elections early next year.
Thai elites and the opposition allege that the prime minister’s 2011 electoral victory was fraudulent and her rule is corrupt. These are baseless charges. First, Shinawatra won the 2011 election running against the incumbent Democrat Party under an Election Commission that was appointed by the military regime that overthrew her older brother, former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, in 2006. Second, even according to the commission’s report, the Democrats massively outspent Yingluck’s Phue Thai party during the campaign. The military used allegations of corruption and vote buying as reasons for toppling the elected government in 2006.
The current protests represent the same anti-democratic forces. Seven years after the coup regime enacted the current constitution limiting the power of elected officials and instituted mechanisms for holding the government in check by an unelected group of “virtuous” individuals, which the protesters now call the People’s Council, Thai democracy has only gone backward. As in 2006, the current protesters — many of them representing the same groups and interests — propose rule by a council of 200 people representing various groups within the protests and another 100 “moral and good” citizens appointed by the protest leaders.
The Phue Thai party, which is financed and directed by Thaksin, has won every election since 2001, only to see elitist opponents try to overthrow it. Amid acute political polarization, a crisis of Thai democracy now looms even larger. In fact, as shown by recurrent and at times violent confrontations, a Thai civil war is no longer an unthinkable scenario. The sharp polarization that led to the current political crisis in Bangkok began in 2005, when the royalist elite and Democrat Party supporters launched an effort to change the parliamentary system. There have been several violent clashes since, including occasional large protests in Bangkok from 2006 to 2010. In 2010, about a hundred people were killed protesting the military-backed government of the Democrat Party. Now the roles of the two sides are reversed.