Democracy and Poverty: Thailand and the Philippines

6 April 2006

Democracy and Poverty: Thailand and the Philippines

By Gwynne Dyer

“We should return to the rule of law after the election,”declared Thailand’s national police chief, General Kowit Watana, last Sunday, as the polls closed in a parliamentary election called three years early by embattled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in response to swelling street protests in Bangkok. “The police have been very lenient for a long time.” But the protest leaders vowed that they would continue until Thaksin went.

Well, he has now said he is going, but he’s not going very far. After meeting with Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej on Tuesday, Thaksin announced that he was stepping down as prime minister — but almost every seat will be held by his Thai Rak Thai Party, and he’s planning to stay as party leader. Some other person will take over as puppet prime minister, but Thaksin will be pulling the strings, so the crisis is not over. “If he…continues to dominate the next government through proxies, the People’s Alliance for Democracy will regroup and resume a major protest,” said protest leader Sondhi Lomthongkul.

It was a bizarre election. The three major opposition parties all boycotted the election, so two-thirds of the seats were effectively uncontested and Thaksin’s populist Thai Rak Thai Party won them automatically. But in Bangkok and the south, where his support is thin, 38 seats remain unfilled because unopposed candidates must get at least 20 percent of the eligible votes in their constituency to win.

Parliament cannot legally meet until all 400 seats are filled, and even the two rounds of by-elections planed for the next month may not fill them all. If and when it does meet, it will contain almost exclusively Thai Rak Thai members. Thaksin will stay in charge behind the scenes, and the street protests in Bangkok will not stop. Thailand’s democracy, founded in the blood of non-violent protestors who ended six decades of military rule in 1992, is drifting into dangerous waters.

So are the Philippines, home to the original non-violent democratic revolution in 1986, where President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo actually declared a state of emergency in February in response to what she said was a coup plot. It was formally ended after only a week and the sixteen alleged plot leaders, a curious grab-bag of junior military officers, opposition politicians, and a Communist rebel leader, face capital charges. But the crisis that began over allegations that she rigged the 2004 election continues, street protests in Manila are almost daily, and some Filipinos fear that the country is sliding towards de facto martial law.

The director of the National Police, General Arturo Lomibao, recently warned the Filipino media that they face legal prosecution if they violate a new regulation that bans “actions that hurt the Philippine state by obstructing governance, including hindering the growth of the economy and sabotaging the people’s confidence in government and their faith in the future of this country.” It’s not all that different from Prime Minister Thaksin’s strategy for curbing press freedom in Thailand, which includes massive lawsuits against individual journalists who criticise the government. (Thaksin is a billionaire; most journalists aren’t.) In both cases, the goal is to encourage self-censorship.

Thaksin Shinawatra, a self-made media magnate of ethnic Chinese background from the poor north of Thailand, is a far cry from Gloria Arroyo, the daughter of a traditional Filipino elite family that has played the political game for generations to protect its wealth. But they do operate in similar political contexts, though they come at the problem from opposite sides. Both Thailand and the Philippines are beneficiaries of the wave of non-violent democratic revolutions that has swept across the world in the past twenty years, and both are discovering how hard it is for relatively poor countries to make democracy work over the long term.

Thaksin, for all his failings, appeals strongly to the poor rural majority in Thailand, because he has spent a lot of taxpayers’ money on free heath care and ambitious rural development schemes. He is loathed by the Bangkok middle class because their tax money is being diverted to the poor, and by the traditional financial elite because he is “new money” with strong connections to international capital.

Arroyo was elected to a second term in a flawed but basically free election in 2004, but she originally came to power in 2000 in a non-violent revolution that ousted a legally elected president, Joseph Estrada. He was a drunk, a fool and a crook, but he appealed to the same set of poor, mostly rural voters as Thaksin, in his case because as a movie star he had been famous for playing gallant underdog roles.

Estrada was overthrown for corruption, but also because he challenged the existing order. The people who overthrew him were the Manila middle class — much the same sort of people who gather each day to demonstrate against Thaksin.

The poorer the country, it turns out, the harder it is to make democracy work: the gulf between the prosperous and the poor drives politics towards undemocratic extremes. But despite Thaksin’s latest manoeuvre, Thailand stands a better chance of weathering its crisis without grave damage to its democracy, simply because there is a lot more money in Thailand than in the Philippines. Durable political compromises are always expensive.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6. (“The director..self-censorship”)