[SCMP Column] The Only Way to Democracy

October 24, 2016

So Donald Trump will respect the result of the November 8 election – if he wins. If he loses, he reserves the right to an attritional legal challenge to the result, and is looking at funding a TV channel to wage a war against the result on his behalf.  In the world’s foremost democracy, one can only shudder – as I am sure many millions of Americans are doing today.

But if Americans are today fearful for the future of democracy in general and their democracy in particular, there is on the opposite side of the world a poster-child for the dysfunctional future that might face them if populist-empowered megalomaniacs like Trump are not put quickly back in a box. That poster-child is Thailand, where the country has in the past two weeks been thrown into deep mourning – and potential political chaos – by the death of its long-standing monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

Thailand for most outsiders has all of the trappings of an open, liberal country, friendly to the west, fabled for its warmth towards tourists, with a constitutional monarchy that has survived through a century that has seen virtually all of Asia’s monarchies overthrown. The Theravada Buddhism that deeply embeds their culture charms almost everyone that visits their country. But behind this warming visage sits a darker, unresolved fragility. This is a country that has since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932 seen 25 general elections, but 19 coup attempts – 12 of them successful. It dances still today with democracy, but has lost what Trump today threatens to steal from America’s democracy – the obligation of the losing party to respect the result of the poll.

The result of this failure has left the country politically gridlocked for most of the past two decades. In every election since 2001, the deeply unattractive telecoms billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra has won the popular vote, supported by the country’s rural poor. And in the wake of every election, a combination of the economically dominant Bangkok middle class, the monarchy, and the military has refused to accept the arithmetic of the polls. After five fraught years trying to rule the country, Thaksin was overthrown as Prime Minister in a coup in 2006 and remains today in exile.

Until two weeks ago, just two threads were maintaining a fragile peace in a country still deeply divided between Thaksin’s Red Shirt rural majority, and the Bangkok-based loyalist Yellow Shirts – an increasingly authoritarian military government led by  army chief Prayuth Chanocha, and the revered but fragile King Bhumibol.

The death of the king, who had charismatically ruled Thailand since 1936 and had been the only king most Thais alive today have ever known, weakens one of those threads, and throws the country into dangerously uncharted political territory. Despite his increasing frailty in recent years, he had consistently been the only figure in the country able to manage and reconcile the country’s deep political divisions. Small wonder the Prayuth government that has ruled since the 2006 coup is palpably anxious. Prayuth had promised new elections for 2017, but all bets on elections must now be off.

By enforcing an extraordinarily protracted 12 month mourning period for King Bhumibol, and delaying the accession of his only son, the unpopular and controversial Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn, the military government is trying to buy itself time to manage this perilous transition. By appointing as regent the 96-year-old Prem Tinsulanonda, who came from the military, was prime minister in the 1980s, and has for the past three decades been a close and deeply conservative advisor to King Bhumibol, the Prayuth government has clearly signaled its fierce commitment to the authoritarian ultra-loyalist creed that has traditionally favoured Thailand’s Bangkok-based military and business elites.

The country’s notional commitment to democracy has been put on the back burner, and it is anyone’s guess whether Prem or Prayuth can reconcile the country’s conflicting communities, or whether they will opt instead for military repression.

Already the country has paid a significant economic price for its failure to forge some form of democratic reconciliation. As the second largest economy in the 10-member ASEAN grouping, with a population of just under 70m, its economy has grown by just 3-3.5% in the recent past, compared with 11.7% in Indonesia, 8.7% in Singapore, and 12.9% in nearby Vietnam. With tourism contributing directly or indirectly about 21% of the country’s GDP, and 2.4m jobs, the frequent coups and red shirt-yellow shirt clashes have had a powerful negative impact on tourism growth and the livelihoods of millions of Thais working in the tourism sector. Many argue that the country has lost its economic edge - neither technologically sophisticated enough to compete with the likes of Korea or Japan, nor cheap enough to compete with neighbours like Vietnam or Cambodia.

Ask most Thai business leaders to advise on the best way forward, and most would argue that the ideal would be a robust democracy, conservatively anchored and stabilized by respect for the country’s constitutional monarchy. Even many in the military appear deeply uncomfortable at the litany of coups that has so consistently brought them to the centre of power. But if Thailand’s democracy is ever to function, then it’s politically active population have to accept one simple central tenet: that if they lose an election, then they must respect that result and wait for the next election to fight another day.

This was well expressed last week by John McCain, the US Republican Party’s failed 2008 Presidential nominee: “I didn’t like the outcome of the 2008 election. But I had a duty to concede, and I did so without reluctance. A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people.”

Thailand’s politicians will never learn democracy until they learn that fundamental respect. And Donald Trump inflicts grievous harm on his own democracy by threatening to disrespect the will of the American people. Thailand’s failure as a democracy may not be a matter of global concern, but America’s failure certainly would be. 
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