A Year in Bangkok – Democracy and the Election

30 06 2011

Thailand's Democracy Monument

This Sunday, 3rd July there will be a general election in Thailand. It’s the third one in six years – I know because that is how long I’ve been here. Thailand is a liberal democracy and it seems to feature all the worst bits of liberal democracy U.S style. Lots of spin, strange (and probably empty) promises but no policies of any substance. And, on an unsophisticated electorate, this can work quite well, as it seems to do in the U.S. I get the feeling that this electorate might be getting a little more sophisticated but, of course, all things are relative.

The 2006 coup.

Since the ending of the Kittikachorn dictatorship in the 70’s, there has been a cycle of elections and coups in Thailand. A lot of that seems to be about how democracy fits with other, older institutions like the monarchy, the army and even the civilian bureaucracy and there is something about this election which makes me think it may really be about the country’s inability to agree on what democracy is for them.

The polling booths are starting to appear.

A big difference this time though is the non-presence of an ousted prime minister, currently a wanted and convicted criminal. He was deposed in 2006, was banned from politics and now lives in exile as he was sentenced in absentia, essentially for stealing huge sums of money from the Thai people. He is effectively fighting this election through a surrogate party called Pheu Thai as his own party, Thai Rak Thai was declared illegal and disbanded. He can’t be seen to head up the party so his younger sister Yingluck does and the general feeling here is that he pulls her strings. One of their slogans is “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. The strange thing is that they love him. Huge numbers of people really believe he will give them a better life – a bit like the sheep which liked Farmer Jones better because he fed them more…….and lo and behold, he got a better price for them at market. It is widely believed that if Pheu Thai wins, he will be given an amnesty and that the money which was (allegedly) stolen from the Thai people and then taken back by the courts will go back to the (alleged) perpetrator of the (alleged) crime. Amazing!

I'm sure that's the banned politician/wanted man on this election poster in his northern heartland.

This is a guy who recognized the potential of getting the uneducated poor on his side and, using his vast wealth and charisma, exploited it perfectly. Current populist policies include offering credit cards to farmers and free tablet computers for all school children. Quite how this country’s extremely poor farmers might repay their subsequent credit card debts is, presumably, somebody else’s problem. Financial analysts and academics though have attacked these policies as extravagant and unsustainable in the long term. This man has also been accused, not unjustly, of abusing his power in office for personal gain and of human rights abuses, particularly during his ill-conceived ‘war on drugs’.

And his sister Yingluck, probably going to be Thailand's first woman prime minister.

Then there is the current government. They weren’t really elected by the people but were the result of lots of behind-the-scenes dealing. A bit like the current farce of a government in the U.K I guess. But that is where any similarity ends even though the current prime minister is an old Etonian. Basically, he is viewed by those who oppose him as a front for other, more extreme and conservative interests and, as we saw just over a year ago, he is willing to use violence against demonstrators who oppose him politically.

The current, embattled prime minister, Abhisit.

There are twenty four other parties and I know little or nothing about most of them. One of them, which you can’t really fail to notice here, is the Rak Thailand party headed by a guy called Chuvit. Chuvit is known as the “massage parlour king” because he owned a chain of these dubious establishments, the biggest of which are almost industrial-scale brothels. I’m told he was Bangkok’s biggest massage parlour owner. He has re-packaged himself as a crusader against corruption, exposing the bucket-loads of cash (and maybe other payments in kind) he presumably made to police and politicians to keep his sex businesses running smoothly. Chuvit appears angry in his election posters, which urge the public to let him fight corruption. Think about it, does he sound suitable for fighting corruption? His posters are great though. One shows him carrying a baby with the message: “Politicians are like nappies, the more you change them, the better.” Another one shows him clasping his head. It reads: “Bored with politics but have to vote? Let me be in opposition to fight corruption.”

Chuvit.........would you let him hold your baby?

The other one I’m aware of, thanks to the posters, is the nationalist party which is urging the electorate to reject all of the candidates. Their posters are lizards, dogs, monkeys and other animals dressed as politicians. They read: “Don’t let the animals into Parliament”. But other parties have complained to the election commission that portraying politicians as animals is undemocratic and the Thai Veterinary Medical Association has claimed that the posters are offensive to animals. When the Bangkok Post reported that, their headline was ‘Beastly Posters Vex Vets’.

One of those beastly posters.

In effect, Thailand has two choices. An Abhisit government which has proven itself competent but, in my view, effectively represents ‘old’ money and risks a backlash in the streets from the red shirt faction. In other words, a conservative government. Or (the most likely outcome) a return to a Thaksin-inspired government which, in my view, represents ‘new’ money and which risks the staging of another military coup. In other words, a conservative government which claims to be something else, rather like the U.K’s ‘new’ labour some years ago which successfully convinced the terminally stupid that it was not really conservative.

Are the military awaiting the outcome of this election?

The passions which are aroused here suggests to me that finding a liberal and democratic way forward is going to be fraught with difficulties. Neither major party is really comfortable with the freedoms and compromises associated with liberal democracy but most Thai people themselves are. So where will that leave us? I, for one, really don’t know.

A recent newspaper report described the streets as having forests of election posters.

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2 responses

30 06 2011
Alex McAllister

“the Thai Veterinary Medical Association has claimed that the posters are offensive to animals.”

Well it does seem a bit offensive to animals to be compared to Thai politicians.

1 07 2011
Ben Salmons

………or to any politicians!

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