Once again Bangkok elite dismantles parliament raised by populist voters
Dissatisfaction with democracy in practice is growing in both East and West. “One-man-one-vote,” “small government” and “free markets”—the founding myths of “rule by the people”—are losing their appeal. Even political parties are abdicating their necessary role as instruments of the representative process to charismatic individuals adored by mass electorates.
Unlimited political dollars
In the United States, discontent focuses on income inequality that is altering America’s egalitarian character and on the influence on government exerted by partisan lobbies and oligarchic interests.
America’s 300,000 richest individuals now collectively enjoy almost as much income as the bottom 150 million.
Meanwhile the US Supreme Court has abolished set limits on corporate political donations—finding these limits to constrain the democratic right of free speech. So that special-interest lobbies may now spend unlimited political dollars on electing—or defeating—specific candidates and even on shaping the agenda of Congress.
Already Washington politics has become so dysfunctional that, in 2010, the radical-right “Tea Party” caucus of the Republican Party succeeded in closing down the federal government for 40 days.
In Western Europe, efforts to complement political union with economic integration are faltering. Recent elections have favored right-wing parties that are racist, anti-EU and anti-migration.
Destroying democracy to save it
In Thailand, “one-man-one-vote” in 2001 handed over political power to an unlikely populist—the billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra—virtually disenfranchising the dominant minority in the kingdom’s hierarchical society.
Almost since then, royalists, opposition politicians, big businessmen, high bureaucrats, the military and even the judiciary have tried to break Thaksin’s electoral power, based on his command of the vote in Thailand’s impoverished north and northeast regions.
On these long-neglected regions, Thaksin while Prime Minister had lavished low-cost health care, debt-forgiveness, rice-price subsidies, farm-to-market roads and various public works. He also rid their villages of narcotic drugs in a campaign that killed hundreds of drug dealers.
Though deposed by a military coup in September 2006—after winning an unprecedented second term—Thaksin remains widely popular. His following has won every election since 2001—and is likely to win any called in the near future.
Since last November, Bangkok demonstrators—abetted by the constitutional court—have been trying to overthrow the government of Thaksin’s sister, Yingluck. They propose replacing it with an unelected council of technocrats.
Last week the general staff—apparently acting on their behalf—pronounced another coup, the 20th or so since the dissolution of the absolute monarchy in 1932.
“Democracy is for those who don’t agree with you,” says the German radical Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919). Cold comfort this for elites in the emerging states, where electoral democracy has sprung unbidden—as part of telescoped political, social and economic revolutions.
After World War II, Asian and African colonies found themselves suddenly transformed into disorderly democracies with mass electorates. For instance, when Cambodia became independent, in 1953, only 144—yes 144—of all its citizens possessed bachelors’ degrees—out of a population of some seven million.
By contrast, western democracy in modern times developed over long periods—beginning in 1215, when the English barons at Runnymede forced on King John the Magna Carta that recognizes their rights and privileges in exchange for their support of his wars.
And until the eve of our own time, the political participation of ordinary people in the western world was restricted by qualifications of wealth, gender, education and race.
In England, students once had an extra vote, in recognition of their learning. In France, women were not given the vote till after World War II.
In many East Asian states, over this last generation, authoritarian leaders and peoples with rising expectations co-existed in a grand bargain, founded on the principle that political order may at times claim priority over individual rights.
Rulers justified their control of politics by ensuring the long-term stability on which economic growth could take hold.
The Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (1927-2008) acknowledged the need for this “authoritarian transition” in late-industrializing states—such as Japan, Turkey, South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and Singapore.
All these states modernized economically under authoritarian rulers. They opened their political systems to democratic contestation only after civil society has become strong enough to stand up against the authoritarian state.
Singapore—where the state still controls the key industries—preserves its “soft authoritarian” character.
In Turkey, the popular challenge to the authoritarian state seems to be building up even now.
Difficulties of the transition
At the best of times, democratization can be a perilous period for a new country. Certainly all the new countries have found it easier to expel authoritarian rulers than to make democracy work.
At least initially, more democracy can simply mean more chaos—as the erosion of the political center’s monopoly of power gives rise to a host of militias, factions, parties and movements founded on regional, tribal and local loyalties.
In ethnically diverse and multi-religious societies, unbridled political mobilization generates “no-holds-barred” struggles for power that can overwhelm immature states.
And while democracy’s accessories—elections, political parties, legislatures, free newspapers, independent judiciaries—are nowadays easy to assemble, making them work properly still requires a long learning process.
Democracy is only the beginning
Now we also know democracy develops best where it develops incrementally—where it develops by piecemeal reforms in the political and civic landscape set off by economic and social change.
The peaceful evolution of a political system—rather than violent and abrupt change—gives democracy a better chance to take hold.
As Lee Kuan Yew likes to point out, the working democracy needs the ballast—the steadying influence—of a middle class, an open economy, a professional civil service, and a good basic education system.
If our countries are to develop as democracies, we must be able to produce consensus out of disagreement and debate—and consensus is possible only when we agree on the fundamentals.
But none of these institutions is easy to nurture. And, in fact, no democracy is ever realized completely.
As the Czech statesman, writer and human-rights champion Vaclav Havel famously remarked:
“As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always be no more than an ideal. One may approach it as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but it can never be fully attained.”