As Thailand prepares to vote for a new parliament on February 2nd, following a months-long protest by the yellow-shirts, the country’s future hangs in the balance. The election will not necessarily signal an end to the strife between the government, led by prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and the yellow-shirt protest movement, led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thaugsuban. For one thing, the main opposition – the Democrat Party, has vowed to boycott the vote, which would render even a landslide victory by Ms Yingluck politically meaningless. Moreover, on the eve of the vote, it is uncertain if the protestors would allow the election to take place. The message from Mr. Suthep to his followers has been cryptic—on the one hand he vowed not to stop people from voting, on the other hand he asked protesters in the South to continue to surround voting stations. Even if the voting turns out to be smooth and peaceful (and that is a big if), it is uncertain if Ms Yingluck will be able to form a parliament, as protesters have prevented candidates from registering in 28 out of 375 constituencies, and the election will result in a quorum below what is constitutionally required. Mr Suthep’s favoured solution to the deadlock is to suspend democracy, and hand power to an appointed council of 18 ‘good men’ until Thailand is rid of the Shinawatras.
At the heart of the struggle between the yellow-shirts and Ms Yingluck is the deep social, economic, and geographical divide that straddles Thailand. Ms Yingluck and her brother Thaksin Shinawatra (who lives in self-imposed exile in Dubai, and is widely held to be directing Ms Yingluck) capitalised on the political power of the poorer rural constituencies, which are mainly located in northern Thailand. While Mr Thaksin was prime minister between 2001 and 2006, he introduced welfare measures that raised rural living standards, such as universal healthcare, rural microcredit schemes, infrastructure building, and agricultural loan schemes. Under his government, incomes in the northeast, the poorest part of the country, rose by 46%. Ms Yingluck, prime minister since 2011, has followed in her brother’s footsteps and introduced populist measures, including an economically ruinous scheme for the state to buy rice from farmers at twice market price.
The Bangkok elite is less than impressed with the Shinawatra’s measures. They characterise the siblings’ policies as a mass vote-buying scheme. They are partially right. Ms Yingluck’s policies have been found to be of dubious economic merit. Unable to find buyers willing to pay for rice at the state’s elevated prices, the state has stockpiled 18 million tonnes of rice, close to half the volume traded globally every year. Moreover, corruption and poor oversight meant that low-grade rice has been imported into Thailand to claim the de facto subsidy, further lowering the quality of the stockpile. As a result, Thailand’s rice exports have dropped to roughly half the usual level. In education, instead of addressing the falling standards revealed by international tests, Ms Yingluck has piloted a scheme to give every student a tablet—it is so far unclear how that would help bolster students’ performance in basic subject areas such as English and Math. More fundamentally, the Bangkok elite objects to the Shinawatras’ reputation for personal venality, and rumoured republican ambitions. The masses, on the other hand, are more willing to overlook the siblings’ personal failings on account of their efforts at rural development.
While it seems likely that Thai politics will remain deadlocked in the foreseeable future, international experience indicates that there is cause for optimism in the long run. Democratisation in an economically and socially divided society has never been easy. A comparable situation can be found in Turkey between the 1960s and early 2000s. As in Thailand, there was a marked difference between the Istanbul middle classes and the rural masses in the Anatolian hinterland. The elite in Istanbul tended to be more Westernised, educated, and have a markedly different political orientation to the rural masses. While Anatolia has been a stronghold of various predecessors of the currently governing AKP, an Islamist-conservative party, Istanbul has always been dominated by the Republican People’s Party, a secular-statist party. Similar to Thailand, where the Monarchy is an ill-defined and powerful political force, usually aligned with the Bangkok middle class, the army played a similarly shadowy role in Turkish politics.
Democratisation in a society so configured is difficult because free and fair elections would always return a government unacceptable to the elite, who tend to dominate the economy, the judiciary, the military, and in the case of Thailand, the palace. Stable governance is impossible without these powerful institutions, no matter how popular a government is. Tensions between the popular elected majority and the elite has resulted in no less than four coups in Turkey since the establishment of their democracy. During the 1960s and 1970s, the conflict between the left and right deteriorated into urban warfare between armed factions. As recently as 1997, an elected Islamist government was forced by the army to resign over concerns from the Istanbul elite that it is pursuing a populist Islamic agenda. It is only in the 2000s that a compromise has been reached between the religious majority and the urban elite. While the majority moved closer to the center and pursued market-based economic reforms and further democratisation, the Istanbul elite accepted democracy as the ‘rules of the game’. Hence, even during the tumultuous protests last year, the opposition did not call for military intervention. It probably helped that along the way, the divide between the masses and the elite was blurred by economic growth in Anatolia.
While there are many differences between democratisation in Thailand and Turkey, some applicable lessons can be drawn from the experience of the latter. First, the entrenchment of democracy takes time. More than half a century passed between the first free election and the very recent consolidation of democracy in Turkey. It takes time for all parties to learn to play by the ‘rules of the game’, even when the results are not favourable to one’s side. In comparison to Turkey, democratisation in Thailand has proceeded with remarkable calm. Second, economic development helps to bridge political divides. As a populist party’s constituents become better-off, the party tends to moderate its demands. Political expression would become less focused on support for one party or another, and become more diffuse and diverse. It is a sign of progress that the Democrat Party no longer disputes the need for greater investments in rural Thailand, but only the means by which state funds are invested. Third, strong support for democratisation and reform from the outside helps. Most of the ground breaking social, economic, and political reforms that led to democratic consolidation in Turkey were motivated by the prospect of European Union membership. Thailand has an open economy dependent on trade, tourism, and foreign direct investments. Neighbouring countries with significant investments in Thailand, such as Singapore and Japan, would do well to encourage good governance and stable politics in the country, which can only be achieved through democratic consolidation.