While people have focused on the difficulty of building democracy in the Middle East, they should not assume its gains are consolidated elsewhere in the world. Asia was the model for how rising incomes and a growing middle class would support democratic consolidation, but Thailand’s Sept. 19 military coup shows how stable democracy needs more than wealth and a middle class.
After the last military coup in Thailand in 1992, the middle class took to the streets with their cell phones and text messages to oppose it and force the military back to their barracks. In September, by contrast, they have been largely silent supporters of the military, along with the King, who switched sides as well. Therein lies a key weakness of Huntington’s “Third Wave” democracies.
The present crisis in Thailand had its origins in the 1997 constitution. Thailand is one of the few democracies in East Asia that has a parliamentary rather than a presidential system; together with an electoral system based on proportional representation (PR) it produced weak coalition governments that were widely blamed for the clientelism and corruption that lay at the root of the 1997 economic crisis. The 1997 constitution changed Thailand’s electoral system from proportional representation to a mixed system that combined 400 single-member constituencies with 100 PR seats, much like similar reforms undertaken in the early 1990s in Japan and Italy.
These changes produced exactly what the reformers wanted: Thaksin Shinawatra was elected with an absolute majority in the parliament that could push through whatever legislation it wanted. Thaksin, a billionaire businessman who has been rightly compared to Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, used populist policies to appeal to a largely rural electorate. The decentralized corruption of the 1990s became centralized in Thaksin, which then produced a largely urban, middle class resistance that took to the streets with noisy demonstrations and strikes to force him from office.
Here is where Asian democracy has gone off the rails. Thailand’s urban, educated middle class could not abide the results of an election that came out the wrong way, and has used extralegal means to overturn popular mandates. Knowing they would likely lose the election last April 2, the opposition parties boycotted it; Thaksin won, but with a mandate whose extent was unclear. Thaksin resigned; the election was annulled; and the election commissioners were then jailed. Thailand has not had a parliament since then, but Thaksin nonetheless refused to leave the scene.
It is hard to imagine a bigger mess. Blame for the breakdown of Thai democracy lies equally with a leader willing to use his money to bend the rules, and with an opposition that was unwilling to recognize the populist but real mandate that the former prime minister commanded. And of course it lies with a military willing to use force to bypass the constitution when things went wrong.
It is clear that the “people power” revolution that brought down Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986 has set a terrible precedent, not just for that country but for the rest of Asia. Filipinos now regularly take to the streets whenever they don’t like a democratically-elected president. The removal of Joseph Estrada in 2001—a corrupt, B-grade movie actor who was nonetheless legitimately elected—was barely legal, and the same thing nearly happened to the current president Gloria Arroyo. Opponents of President Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan, like Shih Ming-teh, former chairman of Chen’s own Democratic Progressive Party, are as we speak leading similar strikes and protests to get him out of office before the end of his term.
A lot of this conflict is ultimately about class. Thailand and other new Asian democracies, like Poland and Slovakia in the “new Europe,” still have large numbers of rural, poorly educated voters willing to support populist politicians willing to shower them with benefits. This then incenses the better-educated urban middle class, who are inevitably more internationalist and likely to find supporters abroad.
A decade or two of further economic growth might mitigate this problem, but for now these democracies, like sausages, look better if you don’t pay careful attention to how they are made.