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.


  • Wednesday #sgroundup: More than 300 people missing after South Korean ferry sinks - coastguard 2 hours 28 minutes ago
    Wednesday #sgroundup: More than 300 people missing after South Korean ferry sinks - coastguard

    Here are the top trending stories of the day in case you missed them:

  • 2015 Chevrolet Trax small SUV rolls back to America 14 hours ago
    2015 Chevrolet Trax small SUV rolls back to America

    For the past two years, car shoppers from Acapulco to Winnipeg could wander into their Chevy dealers and kick the tires on a city-sized sport utility vehicle named the Trax — and about 90,000 have done so. Today, Chevy revealed the version of the Trax it will bring to the United States, for those less well-heeled buyers who want the shape of an SUV without the window sticker they usually carry.

  • Ford Transit Skyliner concept revives the ultra-luxury van 16 hours ago
    Ford Transit Skyliner concept revives the ultra-luxury van

    “Once you do stand-up, you don’t want to go back.” No, we’re not talking about comedy, but rather an emerging trend in luxury transport that’s bringing us ever taller, more capacious, more pimpdillyicious limousines. The quote came from a Ford designer, Tim Stoehr, predicting an increase in interest in limos based on big vans like the new Transit. Of course, these are nothing new; up-fitters have taken quite kindly to the Mercedes-Benz Sprinter, and apparently Ford is chomping at the bit to get in on the action, too. So Ford enlisted the help of the largest Ford dealer in the world, Galpin Auto Sports in Van Nuys, Calif., to help design and build its first super-lux Transit concept, dubbed the Skyliner.

  • Amazon to release smartphone later this year: report
    Amazon to release smartphone later this year: report

    Amazon is preparing to release a smartphone in the second half of 2014, thrusting itself into a market already crowded with Apple and Samsung models, The Wall Street Journal reported. The company aims to announce its new product by the end of June and ship to customers by the end of September in time for the holidays, the Journal said in a Friday report, citing unnamed people briefed on the matter. Amazon, it said, hopes to differentiate its phone from other models with a screen that displays hologram-like three-dimensional images, which can be viewed without special glasses. Earlier this month the retailer unveiled a new media streaming device, Amazon Fire TV, which it touted as simplifying the experience of watching video online.

  • Supermodel Qi Qi is afraid of flying
    Supermodel Qi Qi is afraid of flying

    The supermodel said that she will take her daughter in a vacation but will try to avoid boarding a plane

  • One dead as S. Korea ferry with 476 passengers sinks
    One dead as S. Korea ferry with 476 passengers sinks

    South Korea's coastguard said Wednesday one person had been killed as it struggled to rescue 476 people -- mostly high school students -- aboard a ferry that ran aground and sank off the southern coast. "The ferry is almost completely submerged," Lee said, adding that a detachment of South Korean Navy SEALS were taking part in the rescue. Of the 450 passengers on board the ferry bound for the southern resort island of Jeju, 325 were students from a high school in Ansan, south of Seoul. The 6,825-tonne ferry, which had sailed out of the western port of Incheon on Tuesday evening, ran into trouble some 20 kilometres (13 miles) off the island of Byungpoong.