There is little doubt that Thais like the idea of democracy. They have been fighting for it on and off since 1932, when absolute monarchy was overthrown.
Most Thais will vote on July 3 for the third time in six years. Campaigning is feverish, posters omnipresent and a raucous — though not entirely free — media offer endless news, comment and speculation. Even those Thais who dislike the results mostly shy away from openly opposing democracy.
Yet this election is about Thailand’s repeated failure to agree on what constitutes democracy and on how democracy fits with the older institutions — the monarchy, the military and the centralized bureaucracy. Those failures have been seen in the cycle of elections and coups that has repeated itself since the 1973 overthrow of the Thanom Kittikachorn dictatorship.
But two things are different that make this election especially important and also unlikely to resolve political tensions.
The first is the personality of Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled prime minister deposed by a coup in 2006 who is fighting this election through a surrogate party, Pheu Thai, headed by his photogenic youngest sister, Yingluck Shinawatra.
Thailand has had several democratically elected prime ministers but none aimed for, let alone achieved, populist appeal. They got to the top through deal-making between parties. Thaksin, however, was an authentic populist who identified the potential power of the nation’s poorer classes and used his wealth and organizing ability to exploit it. Whether Thaksin was an authentic democrat is another matter.
The second is a broad generational change that manifests itself in different ways. Income and wealth gaps are wide and getting wider but there is no shortage of work; Thailand now relies on about three million foreign workers, mostly from Myanmar, to do its dirtiest jobs. Political awareness has increased thanks to education and the ubiquitous media creating a feeling among many Thais, particularly in the lower income groups, that they are not getting a fair share of the cake. Generational change also affects views of the role of the old institutions at a time when thoughts are on succession to the king, now 83.
For Thaksin’s defenders the problem has been the unwillingness of the military and monarchists to accept democracy: Thaksin was overthrown, the Constitution was changed, and many Thaksin supporters believe the judiciary was manipulated to oust two prime ministers. They see the incumbent prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva of the Democrat Party, as a front for conservative forces that want a veto over who is prime minister, and, as in Bangkok last spring, is willing to use violence against peaceful demonstrators.
The anti-Thaksin forces accuse him, with some reason, of abusing his power in office for personal and political gain, and undermining the institutions and checks and balances built into the 1997 constitution — then viewed as a democratic model. Less convincingly, Thaksin’s opponents also accuse him of fomenting antimonarchist sentiment and threatening economic stability through populist spending on low-cost health services and aid for farmers.
So the country has two choices. An Abhisit government that has proven competent but owes its existence to the military and is viewed by many to represent a self-interested elite, a choice that risks a backlash in the streets by backers of Thaksin. Or, a return to the Thaksin camp, a choice that risks a possible crackdown by the military.
This being Thailand some kind of deal is always possible, even one that allows for the eventual return and pardon of Thaksin. Money speaks loudly in Thai politics, and big business, though tending to be critical of Thaksin, is more concerned with avoiding political mayhem.
Given the passions that Thaksin arouses and that the king is no longer seen as peacemaker between factions, finding a liberal and democratic way forward will not be easy. Neither Thaksin nor his military and monarchist enemies are at ease with the freedoms, rules and compromises necessary for democratic politics. But most Thais are, which suggests that the election will neither resolve nor worsen the tensions arising from economic success and social change.