Do we allow free speech to someone who abuses the right to free speech? That's a famous puzzle in political philosophy. Now we have another puzzle along the same lines.
Do we allow a leader to use the democratic process to destroy the democratic process itself?
Over the last two months, the war over Thailand's democracy has moved far beyond the realm of personalities and accusations. We've had a battle of defamation suits, a war of competing street demonstrations, and a tactical stand-off over the electoral process itself. We've seen sieges of offices and a blackshirt-style goon assault on a public meeting. The rival camps are dressing themselves up in uniforms and waving flags just like real armies.
This is a fight about Thaksin, for or against. But it's also a fight about democracy itself.
The two camps are drawn up behind two views of how democracy works or is supposed to work.
For the first camp, democracy is about numbers. The will of the majority is supreme. Elections are the method through which that majority shows itself. Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai are popular because they have done things for the majority of the people, especially the Bt30 health scheme and village fund. They have reached out to a rural mass base in a way that their rivals cannot match. If this popularity can be proven at the polls, then the opponents have no case according to this view.
Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai use this argument as the theme of their electoral campaign. Their press ads claim that Thai Rak Thai stands for the rules of the democratic game. They accuse their opponents of using illegitimate methods of election boycotts and street protests.
Many foreign observers, who pay attention to Thailand only when it's having a crisis, have adopted the same line. They see Thaksin as the leader of the majority. They tend to assume his opponents come from a minority which is trying to use an illegitimate form of power to undermine the democratic process. They worry that the opponents are wrecking Thailand's fledgling democracy for short-sighted aims. They say: catch him in the courts or beat him in the polls, otherwise shut up.
For the second camp, democracy is a system in which the will of the people is truly reflected in the way the government is chosen and how it rules. That requires more than a simple display of numbers at the polling booth. At the bare minimum, it needs an electoral process that is honest, a free flow of information so that people's choices are informed, and systems of check-and-balance to keep the politicians reasonably honest.
The members of this camp believe Thaksin has manipulated and abused the democratic system for power and personal gain. They argue he has destroyed the checks and balances in the Constitution, suppressed freedom of speech, overridden human rights resulting in many deaths, shown disdain for democracy as a principle, and used power to enrich his family and cronies through corruption and conflicts of interest. His popularity is real, but it depends in part on the use of state-owned electronic media as instruments of propaganda. Thaksin controls the flow of information to his mass base by the methods always used by authoritarian governments. People think they know him and like him because they don't see anybody else.
Thaksin's record in power has been especially galling for the generation whose adult life has been set against the transition from military dictatorship to parliamentary democracy. Whether they were participants or just observers, they see this transition as part of their life work, their contribution, their legacy.
The people who came of political age in the student protests of the 1970s, are now scattered across the senior ranks of the bureaucracy, professions, business management and intelligentsia. They are very angry at the way Thaksin has destroyed so much of what they had a part in creating. In their view, he is the wrecker of Thailand's fledgling democracy, and it is their duty as responsible citizens to stop him before the destruction is total and irretrievable.
They cannot accept the simple democracy-as-numbers argument because the electoral system, the judicial process, and flow of information do not work the way the foreign observers optimistically imagine. Regulatory bodies seem afraid to probe the abuses in the Shin deal and many other abuses of power. The Election Commission has condoned the prime minister's blatantly illegal promises to the electorate, and ignored the wholesale attempt to manipulate candidatures (where else in the world have over 300 candidatures been voided?).
For good measure, someone bought Chang Noi's neighbourhood community wholesale at a thousand baht a head through a very elegant system of cash-less post-payment through the banking system. Thaksin presents himself as the opponent of mob rule, while goons are denying the opposition the right to hold a rally. He can get away with this precisely because the television does not show the footage of the goons.
For this second camp, there is no chance that Thaksin can be examined by judicial processes or properly evaluated in the court of public opinion, as long as he is able to continue abusing the machinery of a supposedly democratic system.
If the democracy-by-numbers camp emerges triumphant from this political crisis, Thailand will take another step towards a one-party state. This political form, in several different guises, will become the universal norm in mainland Southeast Asia.
But the second camp is a powerful social force with a historical tradition that goes back over 70 years. It won't surrender quietly. Yet this camp faces a big problem over what the legitimate forms of action are to oppose a democracy-wrecker. Many in this camp believe appeals to a higher authority create more problems than they solve. The politics of street protest are difficult to sustain, and dangerous when the rival camp has shown it's prepared to use violence. Amending the constitution may be a necessary but only partial solution.
This crisis is far from over yet.