Thailand and “The Economist” on Democracy

Democracy and its supports;                                                                          The Economist on Thailand  (Per 081102)

The London economic weekly – which we are truly fond of – , sometimes chooses to show  one of its odder sides, and then stubbornly for years at a stretch. (note )
One of its preferred topics is to criticize the massive street demonstrations in Bangkok, and sustain former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and the successive governments which he – even today – controls from his London exile.

The Economist argues that Thaksin has been supported always by very large majorities. In such a situation democracy would require that the opposition keeps its peace. Fifty-one procent is the decisive rule.
I have recently been heaping praise on the Economist for its wisdom and courage in warning now over several years on the risks of financial leverage in financial markets and the unsound spreading of risk to ever wider and weaker circles of society.
This will be a title for glory for “The Economist” over the coming decades.
However, on the topic of the Thai situation I take issue with their shallow definition of democracy.

The Thai situation should be for us, particularly in Europe of interest for several reasons.
First of all the simple fact that so little of the realities of this Asian country has transpired to the West. The Economist was not very helpful and most of the other press was simply absent
Another reason for our interest is that the Thai situation raises questions which will be of importance to our own concepts of democracy and to the future of our countries.
If our social cohesion, our social capital is going to suffer further erosion due to a “multicultural agenda” and the further divergence of growing ethnic minorities, then the Thai example may well contain lessons for Europe. We may at some point in the future have to imitate the Thai and exercize some degree of civil disobedience.

The developments in Thailand over the last five years show that a merely formal approach based only on “the Economist”‘s arithmetic majorities of voters is not sufficient to bring about democracy.
The majority rule has to be qualified and supported by several other considerations

The Economist does not grasp the fact that after the many poor farmers have voted for Thaksin and his successive “nominees” Samak Sundaravej and now the new Prime Minister, Thaksin’s brother-in-law Somchai, the Bangkok educated middle class have good reason to protest. In fact they now practically block the government in many of its actions seeking a departure of the present “nominee” government.
The Economist doctrine in its essence is :
“How dare these bourgeois elitists of Bangkok bourgeoisie oppose the choice of the people in reasonably open elections, especially choices of the worthy poor?
If 51% has spoken, the 49% should keep their peace”.

That may be Westminster wisdom and experience, and happy the Britons who have had centuries of such fortunate experience.
But that is not the shape, not the whole scope and truth of democracy under all latitudes and longitudes. Thailand may show the need for a different pattern.

Parliamentary (majority rule Democracy needs to be qualified by i.a. :

  • Power balance between state organs. In the USA , the President is often a broker between state agencies, parties, states. U*nder that aspect the USA follows better the guideline of Montesquiey about the virtues of separation of powers, and also balancing of power centers. In the development of American society new concerns of important policies, and the interests of various social groups were were typically recognized not by introducing material substantial regulation but just by giving those newly recognized interests their own voice. That meant their own Federal Department with cabinet rank. Giving voice to a new interest or group (trade unions, farmers etc) was an adequate initial step. The idea was : Let then the voices contend and see what will be the outcome, [rpvoded the procedure of decision making is a fair one.
    Such a set-up is based on balance and not on majority rule which regulates in depth and on substance.
    Our Thai reference : Such a system of checks and balances was completely lost under the Thaksin regime.

States with a federal character are also not uniformly ruled by a single majority. In the Netherlands we know that in our previous Republic of the United Provinces. In that set-up a big city like Amsterdam had its own delegation and embassy er between interests. There were many divisions of power where a uniform majority rule could not reach.
Thai reference: Again Thaksin paid no head to regional differences, and his approach to the muslim south was a series of failures. +

  • Democracy is also a state of the government relatively free from corruption. That was certainly not the case in Thailand where Mr Thaksin used his ill acquired wealth y buying up or off all kinds of politicians, political parties, and other powers in the State.
    Thaksin was the quintessential example of corruption from day one, when he acquired a fat monopoly from a relative.

Democracy must also be judged by its fruits. If a majority should impose obligatory euthanasy or obligatory abortion, or should impose a Hitler on a nation, it will lose its credibility and justification and gives rise to opposition. Thai reference: Judging Thaksin by his fruits is what (in haste) the better educated establishment of Thailand did, and what (at a too leisurely pace) the Thai courts Are now working at.

  • Democracy may again take on a special shape in cases where a country has gone far on the way to multiculturalism. Examples like Lebanon, Malaysia come to mind. and have particular rules and systems to keep the ethnic communities at a decent distance.
    Schemes of power sharing had to be found. In such circumstances uniform parliamentarian representation by majority is superseded. Our Thai reference in this case is less close at hand. The country is not a prime example in this matter except for the variance between centre and north in levels of education and political understanding.This is often called the social divide of Thailand. In matters of ethnic and religious differences there are problems in the South of the country.but we have not yet heard of calls for introduction of the “sharia”. If the social divide is on wealth and poverty no special setup is required and a country is able majority rule to introduce measures of alleviation. With ethnic and cultural divides more attention is required, sometimes derogating from an overall domination of majority rule. We do not yet see reason for that in Thailand. Majority rule may therefore apply
  • The European Union in its setup offers us also an interesting qualification of simple majority rule since it obeys to a higher principle namely the rule of subsidiarity This means that rule making on higher levels is only allowed if lower bodies cannot take that responsibility. This should limit the application of majority rule even if for instance the European Parliament or the European Council should try to vote unanimously on any matter. By the subisidiarity requirement a whole range of topics and domains has thus been taken outside the realm of simple general majority democracy.
  • If one should neglect any of the above mentioned accommodating and guaranteeing elements needed for a sound democracy following strictly as the Economist does the 51-49 majority rule is a sign of relativism, as if everything what a majority orders should pass, even for instance compulsory abortion or compulsory euthanasy.
  • That the rule of majority vote cannot stand by itself but occasionally needs correctives and guarantees is also show by an ancient Greek safety rule which on the surface may look rather odd. The mechanism of Ostracism in ancient Athens, during the 5th century BC (and in some other greek cities like Syracuse).
    Once every year the people were asked whether they would like to nominate and vote somebody they saw as a potential danger for the state. That person then would be banned (without any loss of fortune or in his good name) for ten years outside Athens.
    No moral condemnation was implied in ostracism. It was meant purely as a practical way to keep certain equilibrium in the state. Several Greek state leaders (having perhaps been chosen with overwhelming majority earlier) were thus later ostracized and banned.
    At least one state leader (Themistokles) on the other hand was saved in his position by ostracizing the major opponent to his policies. 

    This also shows the need felt in Athens to limit application of majority rule. Our Thai reference: like an artificial rule was used as a safety measure, the civic opposition t o the continuing Thaksin regime in Thai may have also some artificial elements, but is a sound response of society for precaution.

  • The right of revolt against despots is a millennia old acquisition of culture, from the times of an Aristogeiton, of Brutus and earlier. The medieval philosophers were also clear on that principle. But the application against despotic majority rule under a democratic voting regime were then not yet spelled out.
    Our Thai reference: the Bangkokians had to intervene to save the country, even if the procedure is less than perfect in the paradise of political perfectionists. Greece and Thailand were aware that they have to proceed with less than perfect means, which The Journal of Democracy may condemn but which their countries needed.

If the list gives examples of situations where a majority rule of 51/49 may have to be qualified, conditioned and supported by other rules, it remains true that in general the supposition must prevail that majority rules involving a whole national population should prevail. This may (again in general) be the case of the Thai socio-economic divide separating the well-off and educated classes of the center from the poor and uneducated farmers of Thailand’s north-east where Thaksin buys his support.

ELITES AND SOCIAL DIVIDES It is in this light that I see the Thai events, a scene far more complex that the Economist depicts for application of its favored 51% majority rule.

Western press describes them often as elitist and bourgeois. There is some truth in that description. They show exceptional endurance sitting down under sunshine or rain keeping happy faces. They are also enjoying the leadership of fresh theatrical talent from universities like Thammasat University who amuse the audience with witty sketches. Society ladies do not disdain to attend and go there providing food and not caring of their precious earrings.
Does this picture necessarily have to bring disapproval ? It could be good if an less informed and fragile poor peasants in the North, too easily swayed by the populist promises of Thaksin, find a corrective in the better informed citizenry of Bangkok. THERE IS HOWEVER A PROVISO….. …….Provided there is true willingness among the wealthy and the educated to enable the poor peasants to improve their life and develop sources of independent information.

There are a few signs of hope.
Voices like the one of Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula point to the chances which a n increase in commodity prices brings for lasting improvement of the destiny of the Northeast poor farmers.

It seems that all five main agricultural crops have in the last year shown great increases. For the first time in contemporary history all five commodity prices coming together and with good chance that the high prices will remain in the future. As former Central Bank Governor Pridiyathorn Devakula sees it, this may already have brought a considerable part of the Thai north eastern farmers out of the debts in which they were brought by their circumstances and further allured by the easy credit promises made by Prime Minister Thaksin.
But these price increases may not be sufficient by themselves to bring about an improvement, because those price increases might still be captured by the landowners and/or by the crop dealers who monopolize trade channels.
Could the good and educated people of Bangkok do something to make sure that such a danger is averted? For instance that at least some part (perhaps 20%?) of the larger estates, particularly if they are not well managed might be sold to landless farmers on fair terms? Nothing revolutionary, but a well considered process stretched out over a number of years? And could they take a look at the trade patterns for the agricultural crops and make sure that there is no profiteering on the poor farmers by monopolizing dealers? Then the people sitting courageously in protest under sun and rain of Bangkok would have a marvelous case against the Economist and against Thaksin or his imitators. And political parties might then finally enter the Northern part and win over a better informed farmer population. Our western experiences in agricultural cooperatives (very well known for over a century in Germany, Holland, France and other places) could be helpful. Allowing for this important proviso we can safely stay on the side of the courageous and persistent protesters in the streets of Bangkok.They shall then never be called a “mob”

Let me take a deeper dip into the history of Holland to point to some long term traditions which may be the base for some confidence.They will continue to inspire us even if in the future we should go into the streets
The country has a long history of representative systems for government. Our queen delivers her annual speech-from-the-throne in the “Ridderzaal”, the “Knight’s Hall” in the Hague which was already the Council Hall of the Counts of Holland, eight hundred years ago.
Democracy was in the Netherlands also helped by the fact that we often think in the plural, as even the indication “the Netherlands” indicated, since that indicated a community of more or less equals who would have to accommodate with each other.
a matter of many participants, a federation of provinces, united for a common cause,very attached to their freedoms (in the pural) seen as traditional local privileges, which was the form of democracy in those times.
To me this plural past was for many years very visible as I entered my Ministry of Foreign Affairs of which the palatial front was crowned by a big sized coat of arms of the city of Amsterdam.
The Saint Andrews cross of Amsterdam was in turn crowned by nothing else than the Imperial crown of the German Roman Empire, an honor which Emperor Maximilian bestowed on the city, and which the city graciously accepted as a token of awareness that with all its wealth it was aware of fitting also in a wider ensemble of entities: Europe, of which the Emperor was then still a reputed leader. Acepting the Emperor’s corwn was not submission.
Anyone who visits Amsterdam today can well see the true hierarchy of the city fathers: first come the mansions of the Herengracht, the canal of the “lords of Amsterdam” the inner canal circle, and only after that “Keizersgracht” and the “Prinsengracht” the more outer canals of Emperors and Princes At the other end of society Holland had and still has a vivacious democracy in its polders and in the communal protection of their dikes. .

Even our national hymn has the plurality and the accommodation of contrasting elements which elsewhere in Europe might be unthinkable. In that national anthem we let the Prince of Orange through our voices proclaim that he is from old German origin, a true defender of Holland and the other provinces, his new fatherland. Moreover he proclaims himself as the Prince of Orange he is a full sovereign in France (therefore is  a more effective opponent of king Philips II, Yet in the very next verse he says never to have failed in respect to that same King of Spain with whom he technically fought a war. (His and our opposition was against the King’s governor, the Duke of Alba and to the centralizing rule he tried to introduce in the Low Countries.) How many contrasts can you heap in just one strophe of a national hymn? Enough pluralities to make the head of any ordinary European citizen toll. But we in Holland have borne that plurality of origins and attachments with considerable ease. This then should be a strong guarantee for further confidence in our true democratic traditions far from the universe of Rousseau and the Jacobins and other constructs of the mind.
Will that also work in the future ? We have partly by negligence, the well known problems of mass immigration, loss of traditions in exogen communities, not unlike what happens in the suburbs of Paris and of London and elsewhere.

SIGNS OF A TROUBLING FUTURE ? Recently a Dutch Cabinet Minister, Mr Donner, thinking about the future and reflecting about increasing Muslim influence in the public area, said :
To me it would seem quite natural that if ever there should come in our country a muslim majority that majority may impose Islamic law.(or equivalent terms)
The Minister was by the public outcry soon forced to retract those words.
But the question may rise again under the “Economists” hypothesis that 51% of voters should be allowed to rule a country, and against our feelings that such rule should be subject to many important qualifications.
Before the menace of a profound mutation of culture in a particular country, forms of protest, disobedience, action in the streets, and perhaps even armed resistance, might take over, in the defense of a “truer” democracy linked to the identity of the country involved. We may regret such an outcome or applaud it, but such seem to be the lessons of prudence and realism.

If ever the situation which Mr Donner hypothesized should become reality in the Netherlands I can assure readers that a minority – possibly better educated than the supposed muslim majority – will block that majority as much as a relatively small group of educated middle class elite Thai people are now blocking the Thaksin and Thaksin nominee governments of Thailand.

In both examples, a majority would be contradicted and rejected by a more elite  established urban citizenry.
Is that bad ? We hope that we shall have time, both Mr Donner and The Economist and all good citizens of Europe, to reconsider our convictions about democratic majority rules and the qualifications they are subject to.
I am sure the Bangkok elite is not “looking-down” with disdain but rather with pity on the poor farmers of the north.the with whom Thaksin filled his hundreds of buses in a free ride to  participate in his demonstrations.
The pity is inspired by a fear (proven realistic during the Thaksin years) that poor masses in underdeveloped regions of a country are particularly vulnerable to populist politicians, and do not understand the real dangerous import of the easy and empty promises made to them.
The Bangkok reaction is then based on the awareness that democracy is not only unconditional parliamentary majority rule. We wish our favored “nicely opinionated” weekly in London fruitful further learning, as we and everybody and everybody else will continue to learn.
Democracy is not a clear matter of 51/49 but must be surrounded by many supports and rules of prudence .

Anton Smitsendonk
Beijing october 25th 2008


About dutasia

Former Ambassador of the Netherlands, presently National Commissioner for Thailand and for Indonesia in the ICC, the International Chamber of Commerce, the World Business Organization. Chairman of China Carbon Forum in Beijing, China.
This entry was posted in democracy, diplomacy, Europe's relations with other continents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s