Democratic ideals are not negotiable
Any end to the political crisis is unacceptable if it means Thaksin's transgressions are left unpunished
Thailand appears to have reached a political impasse, with the mass campaign to oust Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra intensifying and the embattled leader showing no intention of loosening his grip on power. With the conflict between the two sides seemingly on a collision course, a call for a negotiated end to this political crisis appears to offer an attractive alternative to a potentially violent confrontation.
On Wednesday, Privy Councillor Surayud Chulanont lent credence to the idea that differences between Thaksin and his opponents could still be ironed out at the negotiating table when he said dialogue between the two sides would be the best course of action to end the stalemate. He added that the political disturbance, if allowed to drag on, could cause further divisiveness among the people and hurt national interests.
Reacting to Surayud's suggestion, a beleaguered Thaksin said he was ready to hold talks with his opponents, whom he has described as troublemakers bent on subverting the country's democracy. The anti-Thaksin movement, comprising mainly the middle class and members of civil society, is demanding that Thaksin resign unconditionally, a prerequisite for comprehensive political reform to be followed by a free and fair election.
Speaking to reporters yesterday, Thaksin continued his tirade against his opponents, accusing them of causing political turmoil by organising frequent street protests and faulting the main opposition parties, led by the Democrats, for short-circuiting the parliamentary process and vowing to boycott the snap election scheduled for April 2.
Thaksin has tried to portray himself as a man of principle who plays by the rules, pointing out that his decision to dissolve the House of Representatives was made so that the political conflict between him and his opponents could be resolved by voters at the ballot box.
But Thaksin's self-praise and condemnation of opponents must be taken with a grain of salt.
It must be made clear that elections are only one of several key features of a democracy. There are other important elements, such as functioning independent watchdogs to provide checks and balances against the government and a level playing field for political parties to compete in the poll, as well as unfettered civil liberties, including freedom of the media and citizens' rights to freedom of expression.
Through ruthless machinations, including skilful manipulation of populist policies, Thaksin, the richest man in Thai politics, has bankrolled his Thai Rak Thai Party to two consecutive landslide electoral victories and an unprecedented parliamentary majority. As the most powerful elected politician and wielding virtual absolute power, he has proceeded to undermine constitutionally sanctioned watchdog agencies, intimidate the bureaucracy into submission, muzzle the media and bend rules and regulations to his advantage.
His strategies and tactics were designed to enable him to achieve and monopolise political power and then perpetuate his grip on it, so that his self-serving agenda could be pursued unchallenged and his personal gains maximised. His close associates, including some Cabinet members, have also benefited from their alleged involvement in an unbroken string of corruption scandals over the past five years.
The manner in which his family sold its controlling stake in Shin Corp, a conglomerate founded by Thaksin, to Singapore's Temasek Holdings for a tax-free Bt73.3 billion encapsulates his masterful exploitation of legal loopholes, tendency to use political power to advance selfish interest and slight regard for those he vowed to serve.
From this perspective, there really is nothing that can be gained from negotiations between Thaksin and his opponents. Or to be more precise, there is nothing that can be negotiated in the first place unless one is prepared to compromise on such democratic principles as sound governance, the rule of law and public accountability.
In other words, a negotiated end to this political conflict will be acceptable only if it is acceptable to allow a politician like Thaksin to escape punishment for alleged corruption, abuse of authority, conflicts of interest - the kind of transgressions that fly in the face of democratically minded people everywhere.