Monday, 30 December 2013

Thailand’s opposition rejects elections


Anti-government protesters at Bangkok’s Victory Monument (Source: Prachatai)



Max Grömping

Bangkok
30 December 2013


A wave of recent protests has brought a backlash of the elites against popularly elected (and perhaps populist) governments around the world, as shown from Egypt and Turkey to the Ukraine and Thailand. Driven by typical middle class angst of the numerical superiority of “uneducated” masses, these protests sometimes have elements of a democratic rollback.

Thailand exemplifies a country roiled by mass protests against elections.  Demonstrations in Bangkok have drawn increasing numbers onto the street during recent months.  In mid-October 2013, the government led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra hastily rammed an amnesty bill through the lower house of parliament. This would have absolved corruption charges against the former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother. The government quickly backed down in the face of protest and the amnesty bill was subsequently killed by the Senate. Nevertheless the protests were transformed into a wholesale condemnation of the government, with the goal of completely uprooting the “Thaksin regime”. Protesters forced the capital to a virtual standstill on 22 December 2013, with hundreds of thousands of demonstrators convening around the city.

The current wave of protest is the latest installment of the ongoing struggle between Thailand's yellow and red political camps. Anti-government and pro-government forces face each other across this color-coded divide of regional, ideological and class differences (see this article by Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, and a recent survey conducted by the Asia Foundation).  

The anti-government forces  

The anti-government demonstrators are a reincarnation of the yellow-shirted movement that first brought Thaksin's government to its knees by sustained urban protests and a military coup d’état in 2006. Although currently an alliance of diverse groups, the backbone of the yellow movement rests on the Bangkok middle class and Thais from the upper southern provinces. The capital’s middle classes, who have dominated Thai politics since the 1960s and prospered disproportionately from the country’s economic success, feel threatened by the growing aspirations of rural citizens and urban poor, who have turned out in mass at the polls to support Thaksin’s popular policies - such as universal healthcare, micro loans, or guaranteed rice prices. The middle classes have nothing but disdain for their rural compatriots of the upper North and Northeast, whose cultural and linguistic roots are predominately Lao and Lanna, while many Bangkokians view themselves as the true holders of “Thainess”.

The South on the other hand is the traditional stronghold of the opposition Democrat party, who first reluctantly joined the protests but has now been completely absorbed by them. When all Democrat MPs resigned from parliament on 8 December 2013 to join the protests, Yingluck was quick to dissolve parliament and call a snap election for 2 February 2014.

This was the sensible move for Yingluck. Her governing Phuea Thai party won the latest 2011 election in a landslide. Previous Thaksinite parties have dominated the electoral arena since 2001. The mass resignation of Democrat MPs seemed counterproductive, given that the party had failed to succeed at any election since the 1990s. But their goal was not a new election but rather the transfer of legislative powers to an unelected “People’s Council”, to be comprised of members of occupational associations, academics, and “respected figures from society”. This proposal drew severe criticism from academic circles but it resonates well with the demonstrators and some strata of Thai society. The protesters reject the upcoming election and want it postponed for 18 months, while the electoral system is reformed and corruption rooted out under the auspices of the “People’s Council” as caretaker government.

Resigned-Democrat MP Suthep Thaugsuban has become the unlikely leader of this protest movement. His anti-corruption rhetoric and talk of replacing degenerated politicians with “good people” resonates well with many followers, who have deeply rooted beliefs in virtuous leadership, going all the way back to notions of what Thongchai Winichakul terms “royalist democracy”. There is a certain irony in the fact that a former southern “provincial godfather”, a machine politician with his own impressive track record of corruption charges, is the figure that middle classes coalesce around.

Thai prime minister Yingluck Sinawatra (left) and protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban (Source: commons.wikimedia.org)


The pro-government forces

They are pitted against the red-shirted movement, a coalition of groups broadly in support of the ousted prime minister (in self-imposed exile since 2008) and his proxy parties.  On this side of the political divide, one can find an array of groups that date back to the military coup of 2006 (see Nick Nostitz’ “Red vs. Yellow” Part 1 and Part 2). First formed in defense of Thaksin’s government and solidifying around their rejection of the coup, the red shirts have since evolved into a considerable mass movement, with their stronghold in the Northern and Northeastern parts of the country. Broadly aligned with the Phuea Thai party and previous Thaksin proxy parties, there are nevertheless groups within the movement that do not unequivocally support the ex-premier. A subsection of red shirts turned out to protests against the amnesty bill in October 2013. In addition to absolving Thaksin, it would have also granted immunity to the perpetrators of the 2010 military crackdown on redshirt protesters in Bangkok, which left more than 90 people dead.

Yet, progressive elements within the red shirts that demand an end to impunity and actually rejected the amnesty bill are a clear minority. The majority, under the leadership of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), promptly converged on Bangkok in October 2013 to support Yingluck’s government and staged their own counter-rally in reaction to Suthep’s demonstrations. The location of this counter-rally – Rajamangala stadium in eastern Bangkok – was the site of the first bloodshed of this round of protests, when local anti-government protesters and students clashed with the pro-government redshirts gathering in the stadium. Five people remained dead in the street.

The protests escalated further when the anti-government demonstrators occupied several ministries and forced TV stations to air Suthep’s speeches in November 2013. Yingluck’s government showed restraint and even yielded ministry grounds to the protesters for some time. This incapacitated parts of the administration and has been called a “people’s coup”. Through all this, the military and the courts refused to intervene on behalf of the yellow side (as they had done several times before). Previous experiences had shown that a violent counter-backlash from the red shirts would ensue.


Chaotic scenes as anti-government protesters storm the site of party-list candidate registration in Bangkok on 26 December 2013 (Source: Phuket Gazette)


To elect or not to elect?

The core of the conflict now rotates around the issue of the election, scheduled for 2 February 2014.  The red side supports the polls – partly out of their principled faith in the electoral process, and in parts due to the fact that they know they will win.   Yet the anti-government side (including the Democrat party) is firmly aligned against it. Suthep’s protesters demand the immediate resignation of Yingluck and the transfer of power to the above-mentioned “People’s Council”. They consequently sabotage the preparations for the election by blocking venues for candidate registration in Bangkok and several southern provinces. Clashes with the police who tried to protect the registration venues have led to further loss of life, with at least one police officer and one protester dead.

The Democrat party decided to boycott the election and will not field any candidates at all. They claim practices of widespread vote-buying, candidate-buying and the overall moral corruption of elected politicians. They hold that the principle of “one person, one vote” is not appropriate for Thailand, given the impact of money politics and a lack of education. By the latter, they tellingly mean the supposedly uneducated rural supporters of Thaksin and Yingluck.

But this logic is based on a counter-factual argument, because observers have deemed recent elections in Thailand to be comparatively free and fair, and the impact of vote-buying has diminished since the 1990s. While monetary gifts to voters are still the norm for all political parties in Thailand, their impact on voters’ actual choices is disputed. This skewed view of electoral malpractices is well in line with recent research that suggests that those affiliated with the losing side are much more likely to perceive flaws in elections.

In addition, the protesters’ discourse has turned to “populism” and “policy corruption” as useful memes. Thaksin’s and Yingluck’s popular policies have mobilized the rural voters, who now see that their vote can make a clear difference. The middle classes see their political dominance threatened by the numerical strength of these Northern and Northeastern voters, supposedly “bought” by particularistic election promises. The Democrat party has unsuccessfully tried to counter this appeal by launching very similar policy platforms in the 2011 election. Yet, they have failed to bridge the gap to Thaksin’s supporters, given the growing chasm of identity politics. This also highlights the failure of Thailand’s party system to implement any kind of internal party democracy. Most parties have not become vehicles for citizens to voice their grievances within an electoral framework. As a consequence, the Democrats boycott the upcoming election, meaning that Thailand’s oldest party and only viable opposition force has completely relinquished the electoral arena in favor of street politics.

Finally, the protesters voice legitimate grievances over endemic corruption and a lack of checks and balances in what they call the “Thaksin regime” or “electocracy”. Knowing that they cannot win at the polls, the focus has shifted to calls for institutions of horizontal accountability to keep the legislature in check and to protect minority interests. These usually consist of independent courts, anti-corruption commissions or ombudsmen, and in the Thai case, the Senate. Unfortunately, most of these institutions have become thoroughly politicized in Thailand and lack the ethos of impartiality, or the loyalty to the constitution which is arguably required of such bodies. One reason for this might be found in the fact that Thailand has had 17 constitutions since the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932. This is derided in a common joke that claims that the text of the constitutions can be found in the “periodicals” section of any library. While these grievances may be substantively legitimate, the talk of a “parliamentary dictatorship” that follows them obscures the fact that most of these institutional checks and balances are already politically tilted in favor of the yellow shirt camp.



Cover of Matichon Weekly newspaper (edition of 27 Dec. 2013 – 2 Jan. 2014) and billboard in Bangkok asking whether “Thaug chooses, or election chooses?”, referring to Suthep Thaugsuban’s nickname (Source: http://picpost.postjung.com/254613.html)


Elections exacerbating the conflict?

 In Thailand, this dissent is squarely aimed at electoral democracy as a political process. The disparate discourses of both sides, each caught in their own partisan media bubble, have led to a divisive climate in which elections are unlikely to produce a government whose legitimacy is accepted by all stakeholders. Some even voice concerns that the continued divisiveness and lack of a common ground might lead into further violence, and that even a civil war is no longer unthinkable. An ominous “third hand”, commonly referred to in Thai street politics, is blamed for attacking protest guards at night, possibly trying to provoke the military to step in to “restore order”.

The opposition movement vows to shut down candidate registration and to sabotage the election in every way possible. If they manage to do so in a sufficient number of constituencies to prevent 5% of seats being filled, parliament could not convene. This might finalize the crisis of state and bring about the military intervention that the protesters possibly hope for. Meanwhile, the red side pledges support for the electoral process and threatens collective action in support of the government. The Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) appears unwilling or unable to take a decisive stance to fulfill its mandate and go ahead with the election. Regional election officials in the South are already resigning in frustration over the ongoing hindrances, or perhaps in a move to derail the election themselves. So it seems indeed plausible that the polls might worsen the political conflict. Instead of channeling political forces into a peaceful electoral contest for national power, they instead provide the fuse that might ignite the powder-keg that is Thailand. If they go ahead, the yellow side will reject the results, if they are cancelled, the red side will be infuriated.

An impartial and professional assessment of the quality of the election is thus needed more than ever. Yet there is a void of high-quality domestic election observers in Thailand, unlike in neighboring Cambodia or Malaysia, where civil society has built strong capacities to keep an eye on the electoral process. The only domestic Thai watchdog, the NGO Poll Watch Foundation, has shrunk to near insignificance following the 2011 election. Compared with large domestic observation efforts in neighboring countries, Poll Watch’s observation team of only 700 seemed ill-suited to provide extensive coverage. Interestingly, the organizations former chairperson, Somchai Srisuthiyakorn, is now one of Thailand's five election commissioners, calling for a postponement of the election. Meanwhile, the only other source of independent observation, the regional monitoring network ANFREL, struggles with constraints of manpower and funding, leaving only partisan observers to keep watch.

Even if such an independent assessment could be provided, perhaps by involving ordinary citizens in crowd-sourced monitoring of the polls, it is unlikely to convince the current protesters of the legitimacy of the election. The ongoing political conflict requires first a broad alliance for what some call a new social contract, a negotiated settlement on broadly accepted rules of the game. But absent this, the election is likely to inflame the political division of the country and lead to further violence.


Max Grömping
Bangkok, 30 December 2013

Max Grömping is a researcher for the Electoral Integrity Project at the University of Sydney. His current research focuses on the role of social media and domestic observers on electoral integrity. Prior to this, he lectured at Thammasat University, Thailand. 
Contact: max.groemping[at]sydney.edu.au

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