Thailand begins a new year, the country finds itself at a crossroads.
What seems to be at stake is not only the future shape of democracy in
this country, but whether it will even remain a democracy at all. This
should worry all those who care about the future of Thailand and its
The People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) is determined to bring
down Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. They want to uproot the Thaksin
regime and replace it with a “People’s Government”. They want a People’s
Assembly to serve as the legislative branch of this brave new
administration, and to draft legislation that would reform Thailand’s
They insist that they are not anti-democracy, but support a cleaner democracy – one not corrupted by capital.
The group, led by former deputy PM Suthep Thaugsuban and several old
faces from the People’s Alliance for Democracy, claim the Constitution
allows them to do this. Article 3 of the charter says sovereignty of the
country “belongs to the people”.
The government, they add, has violated Article 68 of the Constitution,
which says that no one should try to overthrow the system of
constitutional democracy with HM The King as head of state. Because the
current government says it will not heed the judgment of the
Constitutional Court, which struck down its recent Senate amendment, the
administration is no longer respecting the Constitution, and has thus
lost legitimacy, the PRDC claims.
Once Ms Yingluck has resigned, an eventuality the PDRC is plainly aiming
to achieve, there will be a power vacuum. The PDRC then wants to invoke
Article 7 of the charter, which says that when no part of the document
seems to apply to the situation, the country should follow conventional
Since the country has been ruled by appointed prime ministers before,
this would allow the head of the Senate to appoint a new premier, who
would in turn bring in a new government of technocrats – “good people”,
using the protesters’ term of choice.
A new People’s Assembly would then replace the Parliament. Its
400-strong membership would comprise 300 representatives from
professional organizations, and 100 appointed by the PDRC. This assembly
would then set about "reforming” Thailand’s corrupted political system.
The PDRC is right to say the system is in need of reform. Politics
remains deeply corrupt. Vote buying, as the protesters claim, is indeed
rife. But to claim that Pheu Thai buys elections entirely through the
purchasing of votes, as the PDRC has claimed, is to grossly oversimplify
the situation. The reality is that – for all his serious flaws –
Thaksin Shinawatra and his proxies are the party of choice for millions
A further oversimplification is in suggesting that only one party
engages in vote buying. All the parties play the votes for notes game.
Studies have shown that some voters take money only from the party they
intend to support, while others take money from every party then vote
for their preferred candidate anyway. Paying for votes is the price you
pay to play the game, as academics Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongphaichit
have argued. It does not guarantee victory.
One further cause for caution is the leader of the protests himself.
Those who have lived in Phuket long enough may remember a little of
Suthep Thaugsuban’s questionable record. In 1995, as Agriculture
Minister, he was responsible for the SorPorKor 4-01 land reform scheme,
in which the deeds to plots of empty land were supposed to be
distributed to poor farmers around the country.
In Phuket, an investigation revealed that 11 of the island’s richest
families were among the recipients of this property. The accusations had
enough credibility – and seriousness – to bring down Chuan Leekpai’s
Democrat government. This fact should serve as a strong signal that this
conflict is driven by a lot more than just revulsion to corruption.
To lose faith in democracy at this point in Thailand’s development would
be a mistake. The system is highly flawed. But one has to wonder what
kind of reforms the PDRC might carry out that could somehow ensure that
when democracy is restored – within about 18 months – it is suddenly,
The PDRC claims to be a peaceful movement, and so far the protests have
been relatively free from violence. But those observers who support the
principles of human rights and free speech have good cause to wonder
what kind of reforms Mr Suthep and his fellow leaders have in mind –
reforms that we are led to believe will succeed in cleaning up Thai
politics where others have failed.
A nation does not make a better democracy by abandoning democracy."