Thailand’s New (Old) Politics

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

FROM TODAY’S WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA
September 2, 2008

“Democracy is the worst form of government,” Winston Churchill once remarked, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Thai citizens might want to remember that when they listen to the latest ideologue who promises to fix their country’s democracy by — once again — breaking it.

[Sondhi Limthongkul]

For much of the last week, Sondhi Limthongkul and his People’s Alliance for Democracy followers have occupied Government House, disrupted flights and briefly taken over a state-run television station. Mr. Sondhi claims that the current government, led by Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, is a proxy for former leader Thaksin Shinawatra; both of whom, he alleges — and they deny — are corrupt. If he succeeds in ousting the government, Mr. Sondhi promises to run “a clean and efficient political system.”

He may want to review his history. After leading street protests against Mr. Thaksin in 2006, the same Mr. Sondhi and his followers cleared the way for a military coup. The ensuing junta-led government sent the Thai economy into a tailspin by clamping down on foreign investment, restricting capital flows and seizing intellectual property. The junta then forced through a constitution to entrench the military — and Bangkok elites — in power.

Mr. Sondhi isn’t much of a democrat himself. Back in July, he outlined his vision for a “new politics,” under which only 30% of members of parliament should be elected. The rest, he argued, should be appointed by various professional classes, while the military’s role should be expanded. The bulk of Thailand’s voters — rural, and poor — would be disenfranchised.

The real problem with Thai politics, from Mr. Sondhi’s and the PAD’s perspective, is the voters’ irritating habit of electing Mr. Thaksin and his followers. After a year-and-a-half of military governance, Thai voters overwhelmingly plumped for Mr. Samak’s PPP in December, giving them over half the seats in the parliamentary lower house. That’s not a bad showing in what was seen to be a largely free and fair election.

Prime Minister Samak has refused to bow to Mr. Sondhi’s raucous demand that he step down, and rightly so — he has an electoral mandate, after all. But he is quickly getting pushed into a political corner. On Friday, when he ordered police to evict protestors from Government House, pursuant to a court order, the protestors fought back. The ensuing melee evoked memories of 1976, when Mr. Samak — who was deputy interior minister at the time — talked up anticommunist rhetoric at a time when leftist students were protesting in Bangkok. The military later brutally cracked down on the protestors, killing and wounding hundreds. Mr. Samak denied that he helped spark the riots.

The stalemate has left a big opening for the opposition Democrat Party to exploit. On Sunday, during an emergency session of parliament, opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva asked Mr. Samak to resign and hold elections. If the opposition were serious about protecting democracy, they would get behind the government and call on the protestors to go home. A party spokesman yesterday said that so long as they respect the rule of law, the party supports all Thais’ right to free speech and assembly.

By egging on the protestors, however, the Democrats, like the PAD, are playing a dangerous game. If the Samak government is overthrown, there’s no telling what might follow it. The best way to “fix” democracy isn’t to junk it, but to let it mature through peaceful transfers of power.

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