Can Egypt learn from Thailand?
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Can Egypt learn from Thailand?

BP has previously blogged about Egypt’s good coup with a brief comparison to Thailand and more recently blogged asking how the “good” coup was going.

Jonathan Tepperman, Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, has an op-ed in the New York Times asking whether Egypt can learn from Thailand.  Key excerpts:

But that bad news shouldn’t overshadow the good. Disruptive protests may have been all too common in Thailand just a short while ago, but in the last two years, they’ve become an anomaly [BP: For now, at least]. The country has gone from a virtual wreck to a booming, and relatively stable, success story. Figuring out how it’s managed to do that is important, and not just for Thailand’s 65 million citizens. For if a place this polarized can pull itself back from the brink, other bitterly divided societies might be able to as well.

So how did Ms. Yingluck, initially considered a mere proxy for her exiled brother, do it? The formula turns out to be deceptively simple: provide decent, clean governance, compromise with your enemies and focus on the economy.

Ms. Yingluck understood that she’d never accomplish her broader agenda and improve life for the poor unless she could first calm the place down and complete a full term in office. And to do that, she had to give all Thais a stake in her success. So she began a bold economic stimulus and reform campaign. Some of her moves, like a 40 percent minimum-wage hike and subsidies for car buyers, were aimed directly at her lower-class base [BP: Not sure you can say subsidy is aimed at lower class, more the middle class]. But others, such as $67 billion of infrastructure spending and cuts to personal and corporate taxes, have benefited the wealthy as well.

She also sought to make peace politically. She has courted opponents, holding respectful meetings with the powerful and popular king — and even with the general allegedly behind the coup against her brother.

According to Thitinan Pongsudhirak of Chulalongkorn University, Ms. Yingluck has brought the elites onside by offering a tacit bargain: she preserves their privileges and they let her hold onto power.

Thus she has left the military alone, even recently naming herself defense minister so she could ensure that no one would mess with the army’s prerogatives [BP: Correct]. She has avoided challenging the Constitution [BP: Not  true although the government has so far backed off a complete re-write and is only amending some sections], including the infamous lèse-majesté laws that ban criticism of the monarchy. She has kept corruption, a perennial problem in Thailand, to a minimum [BP: Not so sure about this, but will wait for Transparency International’s  CPI, although you could say she has maintained the status quo on corruption] And she has ensured that her brother, whom the aristocracy still fears and loathes, remains in exile [BP: This is correct].

This, in many ways, is an ugly deal. It means Ms. Yingluck must tolerate undemocratic checks on her power and the repression of free speech [BP: Not sure the government is that unhappy over all repressions of free speech]. Despite an amnesty law now being debated in Parliament, some of her red-shirt supporters are angry that she hasn’t done more for the families of those killed and imprisoned by the military-backed government in 2010.

It’s also a fragile bargain. Thailand’s recovery could easily unravel….

Ms. Yingluck hasn’t erased Thailand’s dividing lines so much as papered them over, and the underlying power struggle could erupt again at any time — especially if her brother returns or if the king, now 85, dies. But the longer Thailand remains at peace, and its economy keeps growing, the greater the odds that real democratic politics will take hold, so that when Thailand does finally confront its divisions, it will do so through ballots, not street battles.

Indeed, the flaws in Ms. Yingluck’s grand bargain are part of its genius. The fact that everyone is irritated by the truce she’s negotiated is a good sign, not a bad one: it means nobody is getting everything he wants.

That’s how compromise is supposed to work. It may seem messy; it is. But it’s the kind of mess that other countries like Egypt or Venezuela or Zimbabwe can only envy right now.

BP: To be honest, BP’s first opinion was he was quite wrong as he paints a very rosy picture of the current political and economic situation in Thailand  – more rosier than BP would paint – but at the end he does add some qualifiers and re-reading the op-ed he does make some key points (although you do need to overlook his oversimplification of the issues and some parts of the picture he gets wrong as noted above). Yes, the Democrats and PAD are unhappy and if you are reading this today things aren’t “stable”, but Thaksin has essentially made some form of bargain/deal/compromise with the establishment who at the end of the day are more important than the opposition. The key here is not to compromise with everyone, but to compromise with people who matter and who are willing to compromise.

So far the Yingluck government hasn’t acted as gung-ho and uncompromising as Samak did in 2006 and when faced opposition have backed off or compromised. We don’t have a full re-write of the constitution – we so far have piecemeal amendments of some sections – and a weakened Amnesty Bill.  Most importantly, Thaksin is not back. So far we have yet to see or hear any significant push back from the establishment. Yes, we have seen signs of people who are close to the establishment (such as Prasong, Vasit etc) making some noises but so far they have only been symbolic protests. More important figures, such as Prayuth and Prem and others, have kept quiet.

The key lesson from Thailand is that Thailand had to go through years of turmoil before many of the key players realized that some compromise was necessary.  It takes two to tango. The establishment realized that the Thaksin electoral force was not going away despite efforts to change the rules to prevent Thaksin from winning. Thaksin also realized he needed to compromise more and he needed to wait until his sister was back in government and he had a good hand before we could really see the compromise in action (although do think the actual compromise was negotiated before the 2011 election but if Thaksin had actually lost the election am not sure the compromise would have lasted as Thaksin’s hand would have been quite weak then). It is just unsure how stable the compromise is.* It is likely to take the players in Egypt a while to recognize the need to compromise and things will likely get worse there before they get better…

* The main thing that BP is unsure about is what are the terms of the grand bargain/deal/compromise because it is on this issue, we don’t know and this is where it can fall apart. Clearly, before the government started to push through the piecemeal amendments of some sections of the constitution and a weakened Amnesty Bill it was very difficult to see that there was any breach of the  grand bargain/deal/compromise from the government side, but now BP is unsure.