VIEW: Lessons in democracy Thailand can learn from US

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - The US election held on November 6 showed that the American voting public has not only become more diverse in its makeup, but also in its mindset. Barack Obama won the election on the assumption that the electorate would retain much of the age, ethnic and racial diversity he brought out in 2008. But across the country voters affirmed changes in social policy that show a culture changing along with it.

Embracing change has always been the hallmark of American society. However, this time it caught Republicans off guard. They banked on an electorate more monolithic and more conservative than four years ago. And it foreshadowed changes over the next generation that could put long-held Republican states into a very different political map of the future.

During his victory speech, President Obama gave credit to the coalition he had held together. "It doesn't matter if you're black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or Native American, or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight," he told his supporters gathered in Chicago. "You can make it here in America if you're willing to try."

Can we say the same thing about Thailand?

Not yet. Not for few more decades. Let us look at the political environment in Thailand. In any progressive democracy people give importance to the rule of law. But in Thailand the laws are made to be broken. And they are broken by all factions - red, yellow and the rest.

Thailand is a constitutional democracy but the scenario on the streets makes it look like anarchy. It is only in "Amazing Thailand" that factions such as yellow shirts and now Pitak Siam continue to believe that the current Pheu Thai-led government is not a legitimately elected government.

For most of the last century politicians in America have used "fear" as a tool to sway voters. Fear of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, fear of communist Cuba, the Sandinistas and China worked miracles for the Republicans. In fact, George Bush Jr got elected twice by raising hell about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In the aftermath of 9-11 the misplaced fear of a fictitious enemy has resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent people in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Politicians in America have mastered the art of creating external enemies and threats just to win elections. Politicians in many other countries also use the same tactics. The supposed existence of external enemies has become an integral part of the political game everywhere.

Unfortunately, in Thailand, besides external threats there are lots of enemies within. And every other month a new enemy emerges. Enemies from within a society are much more dangerous and destructive. Ongoing attempts by such enemies to trample the will of the majority are nothing but trampling democracy. And as we saw in the military crackdown in 2010, it comes with a very heavy price - the death of innocent people in the streets.

In addition, political corruption is a real problem in Thailand. It continues to be fuelled by the traditional patronage system and greased by huge amounts of cash. Just like in other democracies, it will be hard to tighten the regulatory screws in Thai politics, where just about everyone is in on the game. In any country, the elite, the powerful and privileged will always hit back to protect their own interests. To meet their goals, the votes of common men and women can be bought.

But there is no reason to despair. The power of the ballot can still be used to hold politicians accountable. At a time when powerful groups keep threatening, there is reason to believe that grassroots changes in Thailand can get some long-overdue leverage against those who use elections as a path to personal fortune. As is evident from the red-shirt agitation, the poor and the disfranchised will continue to fight back for their own rights.

There are some important lessons to be learned from the American elections. To begin with, Thai politicians need to work towards creating a democratic framework where the losing side accepts defeat and allows the winning to side to pursue its economic agenda and policies. Instead of causing more traffic jams, the losing side should put all its effort into doing better in the next round.

All factions should refrain from acting like hooligans. It is not the way to win a game. Political hooliganism will only lead to more division, violence and bloodshed in the streets. This is also very clear from the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It is not good politics when the losing side takes to the streets rather than accept an election defeat, and the winning side keeps struggling to unite the nation. A constant tug of war among the various factions is an obstacle to bringing reconciliation and creating a more perfect union.

Why does political chaos continue to exist in Thailand? It is quite clear from past trends that lower-income Thais tend to vote based on economic issues, while richer voters in cities consider social and cultural issues in their political decisions. Unfortunately this trend has lead to increased polarisation in which a few individuals and groups in Thailand tend to exploit traditional institutions, such as the monarchy, for personal gain. The so-called culture war between red, yellow and now Pitak Siam clearly reflects this tendency.

Full credit must be given to the Thai media, especially TV stations, for enthusiastically covering the US election. They should show the same vigour in dissecting and discussing the problems of Thai democracy.

Although not perfect, there is a lot to learn from US elections, especially how to concede an defeat and move on. Maybe the losing factions and opposition parties in Thailand should listen to Mitt Romney's concession speech, just for inspiration.

Dr Kuldep Nagi is a Fulbright Fellow working at the Graduate School of eLearning (GSeL), Assumption University, Bangkok.


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