People power can undermine Asian institutions

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The political turmoil in Thailand is an aptly timed snapshot of the state of Asian democracies 20 years after the Philippine “people power” movement toppled Ferdinand Marcos and doomed various dictatorships in the region. The mass protests taking place in Bangkok forced a powerful and controversial prime minister to call a general election on April 2 to renew his mandate. May the best side win – or, at least, the one supported by the majority of voters. Right?

Alas, that is not how events are playing out. If anything, the Thai fracas is a lesson in the continuing weakness of Asian democracies: the tendency among aspiring leaders to disregard the rules whenever inconvenient.

The foes of Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai prime minister, are threatening to boycott the election – primarily because they know he can win fair and square: the electorate will return his Thai Rak Thai party to power, no question, thanks to support from voters in rural areas. A boycott could lead to a constitutional crisis; under the constitution, a government cannot be formed unless each winning candidate receives 20 per cent of the votes, which the boycott could foil in certain constituencies. At the very least, Mr Thaksin’s challengers desire such a stalemate. But they are hoping for a more immediate and conclusive victory: either through a military coup or through possible intervention by the revered king of Thailand, who could step in, bury Mr Thaksin and allow some other leader to take power.

No real democrat can admire Mr Thaksin; he has an authoritarian – even ruthless – streak felt by sectors ranging from media and business to petty criminals and secessionist activists. He basically won over rural Thais by giving each village $5,000 or more after his first victory in 2001. (Many villages used the money for micro-credit schemes.) The resulting goodwill helped him win re-election last year. What one cannot deny is that Mr Thaksin is playing by the democratic rules – and his opponents are not.

Across the South China Sea, Filipinos are even more ardent in their supposed love of democracy – and yet even more likely to bypass their constitution. In the past eight months, opponents of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, president, have been frustrated that she has survived several political scandals and an impeachment. On February 24, the 20th anniversary of the height of the anti-Marcos movement, a group moved to exploit the anniversary and oust Mrs Arroyo. Under the plan, protesters rallied by the left, big business and the Catholic Church would march on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue – site of the original People Power revolt – demanding Mrs Arroyo’s resignation. Uniformed soldiers from the marines and the national police would join them and, with luck, news broadcasts would inspire more civilians to join the protest – in turn encouraging other soldiers to defect. The hope was for a non-violent, popular revolt that would force Mrs Arroyo to resign as Joseph Estrada, her predecessor, did in 2001. The plot collapsed when top generals refused to go along and reported it to Mrs Arroyo.

Four weeks later, the scene in Bangkok is remarkably similar. Relatively small crowds of anti-Thaksin protesters have been mobilised in the capital but there is no evidence they reflect sentiment elsewhere in Thailand. The military is being watched carefully. The role of King Bhumibol Adulyadej is unique. He is a model of the modern constitutional monarch but has twice used his moral standing to dismiss governments. In 1971 and 1992, however, those governments were military dictatorships slaughtering students in the streets of the capital. If King Bhumibol moves against Mr Thaksin, he will certainly triumph over an elected, fully legitimate government.

Opponents of leaders such as Mr Thaksin or Mrs Arroyo say they have no choice but to use non-constitutional means to eject corrupt leaders who manipulate the rules. I do not buy that. A month ago in Manila, Brigadier General Danilo Lim, the military mastermind of February’s plot against Mrs Arroyo, now under house arrest, told me of the plan to form a revolutionary government. Elections would be held only after 18-24 months, he said.

That is sheer power jockeying, as may go on within Burma’s military junta. In Thailand, the Philippines and even in South Korea (where President Roh Moo-hyun was removed from office by the legislature for two months in 2004), democracy’s main foes are people who want political power – and do not intend to wait for the next
election.

The writer, former executive editor of Time Asia, is a Hong Kong-based author

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