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THAILAND: 'New Politics' to Disenfranchise the Poor

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 15 2008 (IPS) - An anti-government protest movement, whose leaders have forcefully occupied the prime minister’s office, appears to be running counter to accepted notions of democracy.

Despite calling itself the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), the movement aims at placing strict limits on which ‘’people’’ it seeks to represent and the kind of ‘’democracy’’ it has in mind. This is part of the PAD’s campaign to impose what it calls a ‘new politics’ formula on the kingdom.

The most glaring part of this drive by the PAD, which is supported by of a mix of the middle class, urban and old-money elite, royalists, bureaucrats and some trade unions, is its designs on the economically marginalised citizens of the country.

The PAD wants to disenfranchise the country’s rural poor, who make up the largest voting bloc in Thailand.

PAD’s ‘new politics,’ is bent on future parliaments having 70 percent of its representatives appointed, while only 30 percent will be elected. It wants elected representatives replaced by ‘’public representatives,’’ who come from various fields of activity across Thailand.

The PAD’s hostility towards the poor and to universal adult franchise in the country stems from the repeated success at the polls by a party led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was forced out of power in a 2006 military coup, following protests that year by the PAD. In the current campaign, launched in late May, the PAD is targeting the Thaksin-backed governing People’s Power Party (PPP), which won at a December general elections. The votes of the rural poor were pivotal for these victories.

Such an attempt to deprive the poor of a role in selecting a government at an election will be a novel addition to a region famous for its strongmen and authoritarian leaders who have imposed their own ideas of what democracy should mean in their respective countries.

The people of Burma, to Thailand’s west, are being virtually frog-marched by the country’s ruling military clique to vote at the 2010 general elections to establish a ‘’discipline-flourishing democracy.’’ The planned poll, however, will do little to take power away from the military, which has held the country in an iron grip since a 1962 coup.

Malaysia and Singapore, to Thailand’s south, have been known for crushing political and civil liberties while going through the motions of democracy for years. That was when former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad dominated Malaysia and former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew ruled Singapore. Such a nominal democracy was justified under the strange logic of ‘’Asian values,’’ an euphemism to legitimise authoritarianism.

And Indonesia, the region’s giant, has offered its own twist to democracy before the dramatic political change since the fall of the strongman Suharto a decade ago. Jakarta served up ‘’guided democracy’’ and ‘’democracy pancasila’’

But what sets Thailand’s political crusaders against its neighbours is the determination by the right-wing PAD to slash the electoral rights of the country’s poor, something without parallel in Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore.

The PAD’s leaders and others who have spoken at its rallies at Government House have hardly held back their contempt for the rural poor, whose votes in the farming belts in the north-east account for close to 150 seats in the 480-member parliament. They openly sneer at these farming communities, accusing them of being stupid, ignorant and in need of education, because they ‘’sell’’ their votes to prospective candidates at the polls.

Yet this luxury that Thailand’s affluent urban men and women enjoy – to insult a large slice of the country’s electorate – reveals how close to the surface the currents of feudalism flow. It is the latest display in a country that has a long history of the rich and supposedly more educated members of the elite and the Bangkok aristocracy saying that Thailand is not ‘’ready’’ for democracy since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

‘’The majority of Thais in every social group have a feudal consciousness,’’ says Jaran Ditapichai, a former member of the national human rights commission and an arch critic of the PAD. ‘’These people have no shame treating the poor this way.’’

Such an effort to disenfranchise the poor also exposes the flaws in understanding what universal suffrage means, he explained in an interview. ‘’The PAD and its supporters do not believe in the principle that the people are sovereign in a democracy. They are afraid of the poor, who should have equal rights if we want to be a democracy.’’

This sentiment also exposes a shortcoming of the PAD and the government’s critics: to offer policies that are more attractive than the slew of pro-poor initiatives Thaksin promised the electorate at the 2001 and 2005 polls. Those policy-driven promises, which his government delivered on, secured him substantial majorities in the parliament. Among them was a debt moratorium for farmers, an easier loan scheme to boost village economies and a universal health care programme.

By the end of Thaksin’s first term, the World Bank was praising such pro-poor initiatives, since the number of Thais living in poverty had dropped to 7.08 million in 2005 almost half of the 13 million in 2001. Also agriculture incomes in the north-east ‘’rose by 40 percent during the same four-year term.’’

As one respected columnist recently wrote, it is not that the rural poor voted for the ousted Thaksin and the ruling PPP because of ‘’vote-buying’’ and ‘’patronage,’’ the PAD’s favourite charge. Rather, because ‘’the upcountry electorate is richer, better educated, and more experienced at elections than ever before.’’

‘’The problem is not that upcountry voters don’t know how to use their vote, and that the result is distorted by patronage and vote-buying,’’ argued Chang Noi in ‘The Nation’ newspaper. ‘’The problem is that they have learnt to use the vote only too well. Over four national elections, they have chosen very consistently and very rationally.’’

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