The hypocrisy of Thai Democrats

Mark Thompson unpicks the Thai democrats' reasoning for their undemocratic attempt to unseat the government and prevent elections

PUBLISHED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 9:59pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 9:59pm

To many outsiders, the ongoing "occupation of Bangkok" by anti-government demonstrators seems only half protest and the rest fiesta. But despite the high spirits, the protest is an act of political desperation.

Even when Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of former prime minister Thaksin, called snap elections in reaction to demonstrations late last year, former Democrat Party secretary general Suthep Thaugsuban continued his drive to unseat the government in favour of an unelected "people's council". In an obvious double act, the Democrat Party chose to boycott the February polls.

Why do the Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party which once opposed military rule, now so adamantly reject elections? Suthep claims anti-government protests represent the "great mass of the people" ( muan maha prachachon). But an Asia Foundation survey shows that demonstrators are largely wealthy Bangkok residents. The Democrats' Orwellian claim is that sophisticated urbanites should have more say than upcountry voters who are said to be either ignorant or bought.

The Democrats and their allies in the traditional elite define the "Thaksin regime" as evil. However true the charges are against Thaksin, Suthep himself was implicated in a major scandal that brought down a Democrat government in the mid-1990s - a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Vote buying is widespread in Thailand, with the Democrats also engaging in it in their southern bailiwick. But it does not explain why a majority of Thais have consistently supported the pro-Thaksin party for over a decade.

The Democrats' self-righteousness reveals how little they understand Thailand's socio-economic transformation. Many "provincial" Thais are now better educated, have attained lower-middle income status and often hold jobs in cities, changes the pro-Thaksin forces have skilfully catered to with populist policies.

This does not mean the current government will survive. Yingluck's administration is under siege not just on the streets of Bangkok, but also in the courts. Some 300 members of her ruling party are to be charged with misconduct in connection with a constitutional amendment later ruled illegal. With the Democrat boycott, there will not be enough MPs elected to sit in the new Parliament, creating a constitutional limbo. The military has not ruled out intervention, an ominous sign in a country where coups have been frequent.

The Democrats also face blowback from unexpected quarters. The patriarch of the giant Boon Rawd Brewery of Singha beer fame recently disavowed a close relative, a prominent Democrat politician, after she said rural Thais lack a "true understanding of democracy". Many in business evidently understand that all customers are equal, even if Democrats do not believe that about voters.

When parties consistently lose elections, they usually move to change party policies and find new leaders to attract voters. Unfortunately, the Democrat Party in Thailand seems to have decided that if it cannot win elections, they should not take place at all.

Mark R. Thompson is director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre and professor of politics at the City University of Hong Kong