There are many differences between the political crises
now facing the Thai and Philippine democracies, but both represent
unresolved conflicts between the ballot box and street politics and
between constitutionalism and authoritarianism. Thailand could learn
what not to do from Philippine experiences since the overthrow of
the dictator Ferdinand Marcos 20 years ago.
In the Thai case, one
might have thought at first glance that a new election, three years
before time, was a reasonable way out for Prime Minister Thaksin
Shinawatra, who is being challenged not by the loss of a
parliamentary majority or by constitutional checks and balances, but
by the politics of street protest. Shouldn't the ballot box, rather
than the crowd in the capital, settle the issue? It is one of the
advantages of a parliamentary system that elections can be brought
forward to resolve crises.
As many Thais see it,
however, the protests are not about the legitimacy of Thaksin's
majority in Parliament but of what they allege as his personal
abuses of power. These were made possible, they claim, in part by
the way he has used his overwhelming position in Parliament to
undermine institutions introduced in the 1997 constitution, which
sought to check political corruption and populist authoritarianism.
Major opposition groups
are threatening to boycott an election, which they see as a way for
Thaksin to avoid addressing the specific issues of alleged abuse of
power. Most recent of these was a change in investment rules that
allowed his family to sell, without capital gains tax, its $1.8
billion interest in the Thai telecommunications giant Shin Corp. to
a Singapore government company.
A fully contested
election would probably award Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party and its
allies a much reduced but workable majority. Thaksin has presided
over economic recovery, flirts with a rather crude nationalism and
is adept at money politics. But an opposition boycott combined with
continued street protests in Bangkok is likely to prolong the crisis
and put Thai democracy at risk.
Thaksin will not have
forgotten the role of the metropolis in the changes of government in
1973 and 1992. A sustained impasse could result in a repeat of the
kind of military intervention last seen in 1991, with the tacit
backing of the monarchy and some of a Bangkok elite, which now
despises Thaksin as much as it once despised the generals. Although
the military's role in Thai society is now much diminished, it still
sees itself as the ultimate guardian of national cohesion.
The Philippine armed
forces, on the other hand, have never actually been in power. Marcos
had a civilian administration but used the military for his own
martial law purposes. Since his downfall 20 years ago, the military
has merely been the source of several half-baked coup attempts by
mid-ranking officers. Its top brass has been loyal to the president.
It protected President Corazon Aquino and was follower, not leader,
in the eviction of President Joseph Estrada in 2001 and the
elevation of Vice President Gloria Arroyo.
The Philippine problem
is not so much the military but contradictions between the ballot
box, the constitution and the elite groups, which struggle among
themselves for power and spoils but set the rules of the game to
suit their own purposes. It was a meeting of minds of the church,
big business and elite politicians that brought the masses onto the
street to call for Estrada's ouster. These protests led to the
judiciary consenting to the constitutionally dubious removal of
On Friday, Arroyo used
an alleged coup plot by military officers to declare a state of
emergency. But Arroyo is less threatened by the military than by a
wider belief that her 2001 installation was undemocratic and that
her election in 2004 may have been the result of a fraudulent count
after her intervention with the election commissioner. Even former
Presidents Aquino and Fidel Ramos have deserted her. She can
probably hold on for lack of credible alternatives, but the
emergency decree is a sign of weakness.
Where the Philippine
political system goes from here is anyone's guess. But Thais should
bear in mind the Philippine experience as they assess the
constitutional as well as personal issues in the struggle between
Thaksin and his opponents. Successful democracy requires both that
the verdict of the ballot box is respected and that the winner abide
by broadly agreed rules of conduct and restraints on personal power.