EDITORIAL: Thai democracy at a crossroads

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Voters go to the polls tomorrow, but more important is restoring full democracy and a system of checks and balances

More than at any other time in almost 73 years of democracy, the February 6 general election represents an opportunity for Thailand’s voters to redefine the way our country is governed. At stake is nothing less than the future course of the Thai version of this most benevolent of political systems, which we have come to take for granted. Thailand stands at a crossroads. The choice that voters make when they go to the polls tomorrow will change the entire political landscape and how its participants interact. At least some aspects of fundamental democratic principles may be traded for a paternalistic authoritarian model of government.

In many ways, Thai politics has already changed.

If Thai Rak Thai’s 2001 landslide victory was any indication of how populist policies could be designed to persuade voters to take the plunge and install Thaksin Shinawatra as prime minister, then this time around the ruling party will contest the election with an overwhelming advantage.

Four years ago Thai Rak Thai touted a platform dominated by populist policies tailor-made to appeal to the electorate, including universal healthcare, Bt1-million village funds, a debt moratorium for farmers and the People’s Bank micro-credit programme. And the list goes on. To its credit, Thai Rak Thai did deliver on every promise. Thhe party’s uncanny ability to make good on its pledges exceeded public expectations and made huge numbers of new converts.

Even Thaksin’s staunchest critics grudgingly concede that the man has pulled off a remarkable achievement, even as the impact of those populist policies have yet to be fully understood, even while the implications for the country’s destiny are still being debated.

Be that as it may, the incumbent Thaksin is now reaping an early harvest from those policies – and from his hands-on economic management – all of which were aimed primarily at increasing rural household incomes and encouraging consumer spending, in order to put Thailand back on track for high economic growth.

Thaksin’s party was the first to recognise the potential and applicability of “political marketing” in this country. From its inception in 1998 Thai Rak Thai has used market-research methods to ascertain what the voters want. It then developed a brand and imbued it with a message: Thai Rak Thai led by CEO Thaksin = decisive leader who gets things done.

Next, the party developed products, populist policies, that would appeal to people’s sometimes unprincipled wants and needs. Citizens were promised many entitlements without really having to work for them, such as by paying higher taxes, if they would simply vote for Thai Rak Thai.

But as the past four years has shown, society pays a high price for such adventurous policies, even if they do appear, at least for now, to be paying off and keeping most people happy enough to want to return Thaksin to power for a second term. That price people have already paid and are apparently prepared to pay even more to give Thaksin a blank cheque to run the country as he pleases. Thai society has grown accustomed to turning a blind eye to Thaksin’s total disregard and contempt for the rule of law, civil liberties and good governance, just as long as Thaksin keeps delivering the goods, that is more and bigger entitlements.

Thaksin’s iron grip on power has been made possible by people’s willingness to give him a greater scope and freedom of movement than any of this country’s democratically elected predecessors ever had.

Four years under Thaksin has brought about drastic changes in Thailand’s once vibrant democracy. One by one, the constitutionally mandated independent watchdog agencies that were created to counterbalance government power have succumbed to pressure and bowed down before the powers that be. Still hanging in the balance and probably next to go under are an effective parliamentary opposition and what little is left of media freedom.

Democracy, in the widest sense of the word, is an internal organisation of the state in which the source and exercise of political power lie with the people, enabling the governed to govern themselves through elected representatives. As it is, Thailand barely qualifies as a democracy.

When voters cast their ballots on Sunday, they will decide whether they want to trade in the last vestige of democratic values for the convenience of a strong government that will do all of their thinking for them, unencumbered by any voice of dissent. The least they can do to safeguard the country’s democracy against excessive abuse and further erosion is maintain an effective opposition in Parliament, even if no other party at this time can offer itself as a viable alternative to another Thai Rak Thai government.

Published on February 05, 2005

The Nation