Thai democrats give up on democracy, again

Even if you were writing satire, you would hesitate before daring to invent a group called “People’s Alliance for Democracy” that called for the dismissal of an elected government and a moratorium on further elections. Yet that seems to be the reality this week in Thailand.

The controversial amnesty bill, promoted by the government of Yingluck Shinawatra in the interests of her exiled brother Thaksin, was, as expected, rejected by the Senate on Monday night. The government has promised that it will not be reintroduced, and it now seems to regard the matter as closed.

Protesters disagree. The opposition Democrat Party and the People’s Alliance for Democracy (the “yellow shirts”) have continued their demonstrations, now with the explicit goal of overthrowing the government. A petition in the name of a broad anti-Thaksin alliance has asked the king to dismiss Yingluck and appoint a “people’s council” to run the country: a spokesman said that “the coalition embodied the spirit of revolution felt throughout the country.”

Another protester was quoted by the Nation as saying “There should be no more elections from now on,” while others “said that politicians should be kept away from running the country for a few years.” As the reporter from the New York Times puts it, “Thai politics … appear to have returned to the polarized and unpredictable deadlock between opponents and supporters of Mr. Thaksin.”

I’m no fan of Thaksin, and I think it’s probably a good thing that the plan to grant him amnesty has failed. But it must be remembered that his party has won four successive elections and his sister enjoys a solid parliamentary majority. Those who call themselves democrats can’t simply wish those facts away.

Yingluck mishandled the amnesty bill badly, and in doing so has given the opposition a popular issue to run on at the next election, due in mid-2015. But it’s no excuse for trying to short-circuit the democratic process.

It’s not clear how much support the protesters have. Traditionally the yellow shirts represent the more affluent urban population, but the business lobby seems to have rallied to the government’s side. The chairman of the Thai chamber of commerce called for “all rallies to be called off to reduce confrontation amid escalating political tensions.”

Quite possibly, with the amnesty off the table, the protests will gradually peter out. Continued disorder just increases the risk of military intervention, and Thailand has been down that road before. In the end it solves nothing; once the soldiers return to their barracks, the same players are still there, their attitudes have hardened, and the liberal democratic rhetoric of Thaksin’s opponents looks more hollow than ever.

At the time of the confrontation of 2010 I put it like this:

… fear of Thaksin’s peasant populism has driven [Democrat Party leader] Abhisit more and more into the arms of the country’s elite establishment, and especially of the military. When you lose faith in the rule of the ballot box, you end up sooner or later in the hands of the men with guns.

With any luck, the generals will be a bit less trigger-happy this time around.

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