People in America love Thai food. But beyond that, we don’t know much about Thailand as a country. It is a complicated place, caught between the conservative military and loyalists to the King, who have helped develop Bangkok into an international manufacturing and commercial center and Thailand into a prosperous exporter, and a new media-driven populist movement based in rural areas who are eager to share in Thailand’s economic growth, and get a larger share than they have gotten in the past.
Very roughly, this is the division between the “Yellow-shirts” (supporters of the first group) and the “red-shirts” (supporters of the second group). The critical support for the conservatives has come from the military; the critical leadership for the populists has come from the mobile phone tycoon Shinawatra family, Thaksin (Prime Minister 2001-2006) and his sister Yingluck (Prime Minister 2011-2014).
Thailand looked like another one of the promising, economically booming and democratic countries around the rim of East Asia (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia). Then in 2006, the army staged a coup against Thaksin Shinawatra, replacing him with a conservative government and triggering massive protests by the red-shirt movement. The army cracked down hard in response, with gunfire in the streets. At the time, I wrote that this boded ill for democracy; once the military uses force to maintain power it is hard to go back to accepting popular legitimacy as the only route to power.
I was therefore happily surprised when the army allowed Thaksin’s sister Yingluck to run for office and take power after leading her brother’s party to a landslide victory. But it was not as simple as that. A few years into office, after trying to set the stage for her brother’s return, the conservatives struck back. The Constitutional court found grounds to dismiss Yingluck from the post of Prime Minister. Her party chose a caretaker government and called new elections; but due to a boycott by the opposition, the courts declared the new elections invalid. So the current government exists without a political mandate.
Naturally, the yellow-shirts want the current government to resign and have a conservative government appointed to rule in its place. They claim that until this happens, no fair election can be held, and have been protesting in the streets to demand this. The red-shirts have argued that their popularly-elected leader is being unfairly driven from office.
Yesterday, the army declared martial law in order to restore order. They claim this is NOT a coup. (Observers have called it a “Semi-coup.”) But what will happen to democracy? The Shinawatra’s party has the overwhelming support of the majority of Thailand’s people. But that support is very concentrated in the rural areas and Northern portions of the country. In the south and in Bangkok, the military and royalist parties have substantial support. We thus have the spectacle of a country sharply divided between regions who support different leaders and different visions of their country.
This is a particularly difficult problem for a parliamentary country, where the chief executive represents only the ruling party, and the legislature is run by them as well. It is hard to assure minorities their rights, or manage a compromise, in such conditions. And it is doubly hard when the courts become politicized, dominated by the interests of one or the other party as well.
Turkey now finds itself in the same difficulty. The AKP, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, has rock-solid support in the pious Anatolian heartland of the country, where the conservative business community has prospered and the Islamist population have supported them. But in Istanbul and Ankara, and along the western coast, a more cosmopolitan population wants a more relaxed and secular regime, more attention to green issues and less tolerance of corruption. The protests over Gezi Square park and other issues have polarized the country, making Erdogan more defiant and determined to have his way, and more disdainful and dismissive of those who disagree with him. In recent months, he has packed the courts and media with his supporters, and wielding a solid parliamentary majority, there is little his opponents can do about it. Democratic freedoms of protest and media criticism are being trampled; the independence of the courts has been sharply reduced, and anger at Erdogan’s disregard for the views of the population who do not support him is growing. Yet Erdogan seems eager to pursue polarization. At a recent visit to Soma, where a terrible mining disaster took the lives of over three hundred Turks, Erdogan’s staff kicked one protestor and Erdogan himself apparently slapped another. Protestors wanted an apology from the government, as the opposition had requested a safety review of the formerly government-owned, recently privatized mine a month ago, but were rebuffed by Erdogan’s party. They got nothing of the sort, just a statement that accidents like this are normal.
Erdogan is now setting the stage to run for the Presidency this year. If he wins, it increasingly looks like it will be a one-man, one-party regime.
Ukraine is very clearly headed for the same difficulty — a country that is sharply divided across regions with different goals and visions of their country. The west wants to be a European country and part of the European community. The east distrusts Europe and wants to be closer to Russia, feeling that their cultural cousins and historical partners will in fact care more and do more for them than the distant Europeans against whom they fought in WWII.
How to manage such divided countries? I have been rereading The Federalist Papers, and you have to marvel at the foresight and ingenuity of our founding fathers. They anticipated that their country would expand over an ever-larger territory and risked being divided. In fact, they knew from the need to manage the issue of slavery that they already had a divided country, with the plantation/agrarian/slaveholding south holding a different view of America’s future than the smallholder/commercial/manufacturing and free labor north. So they put multiple protections into the government — a legislature with non-proportional representation (the Senate) that gave all states an equal vote regardless of size, and a complicated procedure for selecting a president and vice-president that pretty much ensured the President had to carry a majority of votes in a majority of the states, not just a simple majority of the total votes which might be heavily concentrated in one region.
The essence of democracy is compromise, not confrontation; giving everyone, including minorities, a sense that their interests are secure and will be represented, not trampled by the regime. Madison argued that simple parliamentary regimes could lead to the tyranny of the majority, which a carefully designed republican form of government could prevent.
There is a clear lesson here for states like Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine. They need constitutions that assure all regions and views can be represented; that the rights of all groups will always be protected even if they are not in the majority; and that require numerous and broad compromises for laws to be enacted. In recent years, it has become fashionable to bemoan the inefficiency and polarization of America’s divided government, calling it dysfunctional. Yet we should recall that the ultimate function of America’s complicated political system is to preserve democracy for all. In that it has succeeded, and the travails of countries such as Thailand, Turkey, and Ukraine show us why.