Thais hold democracy's fate in their own hands

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 January, 2008, 12:00am

The taking of office today of a democratically elected government in Thailand 16 months after a military coup would seem to mark the end of a turbulent chapter in the nation's history.

Elections alone do not make democracy, however, and whoever is chosen as prime minister has a daunting to-do list to accomplish before Thais will be able to truly claim to be governing themselves.

Addressing the divide between urban and rural Thais that led to the coup is the most immediate challenge for the new leader. It will be no easy task hammering out a cabinet that satisfies the dominant People Power Party and its five coalition partners while putting in place ministers able to properly govern the country.

The pressure to fashion a functioning administration will predominate, though, and a cabinet is likely to be named this week. Doing so promptly is necessary given the economic, security and social quagmires military misrule has landed Thailand in.

But there are significantly greater challenges that are not a matter of bargaining and compromise. Thais need to be better educated in the ways of democracy, their rights and protections to govern themselves have to be strengthened and the role of the military in society has to be properly determined.

Until these issues can be decisively dealt with, Thailand will continue to have democracy in name only. Unlike piecing together a coalition government or cabinet, these are matters that will take months and years to develop and resolve.

A coup would not have taken place, ushering back the pre-democracy era of the early 1990s, if Thais truly understood the worth of democracy. Nor would prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra have abused his powers, prompting demonstrations and his ousting.

A way to keep politicians and soldiers honest and abide by democratic principles has to be ensured. This will come about only through their activities being closely scrutinised by a concerned and informed public.

The constitution put in place by the generals does not allow for this. Nearly half of the 150 seats in the senate are appointed, for example, allowing the military to still have a central role in politics if it so chooses.

There will be much pressure on the prime minister to appoint a general to the post of defence minister. But until soldiers opt out of politics and return to their barracks and the job of providing security, politics will remain the domain of interest groups, not the people.

A Supreme Court ruling last Friday that it did not have jurisdiction to determine if the PPP was a front for Mr Thaksin, whom the junta barred from politics for five years, augurs well for the rule of law. With the former leader having close ties to the party and promising to return to the country in April despite facing corruption charges, the new prime minister has to handle developments with care so as not to stir instability.

The coming months will be challenging for the new government. As difficult as they may be, its priority has to be to uphold the rule of law, establish and protect the checks and balances of the system and strengthen transparency.

Only when Thais are truly involved in and knowledgeable about democracy will the balance between political influence and military power be resolved. At that time, the political turmoil of the past will be laid to rest.