Democracy put to the ultimate test
Two brands of democratic ideals are being touted by opposing camps, but only one will prevail
Faced with mounting public pressure from the politically powerful middle-class elite to resign as caretaker prime minister and perhaps leave politics for good, beleaguered Thai Rak Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra has launched an all-out offensive against his swelling ranks of critics. Portraying himself as a champion of democracy, Thaksin claims to be heroically abiding by the rules as an upright politician, in order to fend off "unprincipled protesters bent on subverting the Constitution and imposing a mob rule on society".
The premier insists that the supremacy of the ballot box offers the best possible solution for settling, once and for all, the current political deadlock, which centres on the question of his legitimacy as a democratic leader, or his lack thereof. He expects the outcome of the April 2 snap election not only to renew his mandate to rule, but also to absolve him of every transgression he has committed against Thai democracy and the Kingdom's citizens over the five years he's been in power.
Taken at face value, Thaksin's argument appears sound and consistent with one of the most fundamental principles of parliamentary democracy. But on closer inspection, his invocation of ballot-box democracy, as he chooses to interpret it, does not hold water. It fails to take into consideration a major fallacy of the concept, particularly in a less-developed democracy like ours, in which the impoverished, poorly informed masses are easily manipulated by people of his ilk.
And Thaksin's manipulation has been well documented. It includes an ingenious use of populist policies that pander to the unprincipled wants and needs of the people, complementing his party's advantage of a huge war chest financed by his own fabulous personal wealth. In the majority of rural constituencies, outright vote buying remains the key determinant of poll results.
Once Thaksin gained power as "chief executive", he allegedly proceeded to subvert the Constitution by undermining independent watchdog agencies, including the Constitution Court, the National Counter Corruption Commission and the Election Commission. Their job was to ensure the rule of law, be a check and balance on government power, ensure sound governance, public accountability and fair competition among political parties.
After five years of abuse, these constitutionally mandated organisations have inexplicably lost their effectiveness to serve their stated purposes. They have begun to toe the Thaksin government's line and become instruments through which the Thai Rak Thai leader can bend the rules, both to tighten his grip on power and advance the selfish interests of himself and his cronies at the expense of the public good. Not even the supposedly politically neutral Senate has escaped such an ignominious fate.
In virtually every single compromised watchdog agency may be found allegations of collusion between the Thaksin government and those senators charged with the nomination and appointment of members to those "independent" bodies, plus allegations of people friendly to the government being installed.
It should thus hardly come as a surprise that all of the alleged corruption cases and high-handed manipulation of democratic institutions by Thaksin and his cronies have gone unpunished. That is why the main opposition parties, led by the Democrats, are boycotting the election. And it's also why the anti-Thaksin movement, encompassing the urban middle class, civic groups and a growing cross-section of society - indeed all free-thinking, law-abiding citizens - has become so worked up and decided to take to the streets. Protesters are demanding that any fresh election for a new government must be preceded by a thorough reform of the Constitution and weeding out of corrupt elements from key democratic institutions.
Returning Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party to power through the ballot box on April 2 under the existing seriously flawed political system can only seriously jeopardise Thailand's democracy and imperil its destiny as a viable economy. It could possibly cause social cohesion to disintegrate. The stakes may be high as the confrontation between the two sides of this conflict of ideas heats up, but the ultimate outcome - as to which side's idea of democracy will prevail - is not in doubt.