“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing, / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you, / But time makes you bolder, / Even children get older. / I’m getting older too. / I’m getting older too .”
These words, written and sung originally by Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, are a suitable way to describe yesterday’s political landslide, and what it represents, for the nation of Thailand. Whether one likes these results or not, or expected them or not, the fact that Thailand’s people have a chance to vote means that their voice is heard, even when it is not heeded. A party with the slogan “Taksin thinks, Puea Thai acts” won an absolute majority in Thailand’s Congress, despite political pressure and threats from the military establishment.
You don’t have to like what it means to understand what it means. The trouble with many nations around the world (and many institutions) is that they want the benefits of a democracy (such as popular support and “buy-in”) without paying the price of democracy. The price of a democracy is letting the people decide who represents them, and what policies and aims and goals and worldviews they support. If you want the benefits of a democracy you have to accept the answers–at least in the short term, and work to do a better job of persuading the people and showing them your respect for the next election. The effective practice of democratic politics need not be corrupt (though it often is), but it does require that would-be political leaders respect and honor the common people.
To fail to honor them, including honoring the choices they make and their right to make such choices based upon their own reasoning and calculations, is to desire a sham democracy, or a “managed” democracy, where the people have a vote that ultimately does not mean anything because the real decisions are made by party leaders or generals or dictators or elites cutting dirty deals in smoky rooms or whomever. The people eventually understand (and these days are proving themselves quick learners) that the voting is a sham, and they have risen up all over the world demanding change, whether through popular revolutions or the ballot box. 2011 is a bad year to be a dictator, a bad year to try to “manage” democracy without truly heeding the voice of the people. Sometimes, many times, people will so resent being considered as children incapable of making rational decisions that they will deliberately vote in such a way as to spite those who think themselves the natural or qualified leaders because of disrespect and condescension.
That appears to be the response of the Thai people. Out of 500 seats, the Puea Thai party looks to be winning between 260-265 seats, an absolute majority. The second place “incumbent” Democrats look to have about 160 seats. An impending coalition with three smaller parties that support reconciliation (i.e. the return of Taksin) will give PM-elect Yingluck Shinawara, Taksin’s younger sister, a nearly 3/5 majority within the Thai Parliament. Oh, and she will be Thailand’s first female prime minister as well, presumably . That probably means there will be an amnesty act soon that would allow Taksin to return home from exile, and that may (or may not) include amnesties for former Prime Minister Abhisit and other civilian and military leaders responsible for a brutal military crackdown last year that led to nearly 100 deaths in Bangkok. What else it means is difficult to say at this time. Time will tell.
Time will also tell if this result is respected by the military establishment. Due to the Thai military repeatedly intervening in the political process of Thailand, the Democratic party has ruled for long periods of time, including since 2008, despite not winning an actual election since 1992 (the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates had a winning season, to put it in some perspective). For Thais to have faith in their political system, it requires the results of that political system to be honored and dealt with in a reasonable fashion. As an American, I am used to “voting out the bums” because there is a trust that the results of elections are respected regardless of who wins. If Thailand wants to reap the fruits of that trust in the democratic process, they must sow respect for the people and their decisions. Nothing worth having comes without a price. Is Thailand’s establishment willing to pay that price to receive the trust and wholehearted support of their people? I suppose we shall see soon enough.
All over Baan Mae Sa Luang and the town of Mae Rim little red flags are flying on the side of the road. Whether you agree with the decision of the Thai people or not, they have made it, and have made it clear and obvious. It takes some political cultures a long time to cease trying to control or dominate the people and learn how to persuade them respectfully. Sadly, elites are far often far slower learners of the political process than the masses they insult and disrespect so cavalierly. The results around the world have been tragic and deadly. Has the lesson been learned in Thailand? We shall see.