As Thailand holds what is considered the most controversial elections in its recent history Sunday, the battle over the country’s future is being fought anywhere but at the ballot.
The ongoing anti-government protests brought not only parts of the capital Bangkok to a grinding halt, but also the entire political discourse. In fact, the ongoing crisis is questioning the very survival of electoral democracy in Thailand again – something supposedly unprecedented in this age.
The initial outrage back in November 2013 is valid, since the controversy over the amnesty bill is a self-inflicted wound on the part of the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The overzealous attempt to clear a legal path for her brother Thaksin to return from exile was a grave miscalculation that could cost more than just a few supporters.
With the bill killed and the protesters’ main gripe gone, the anti-amnesty movement then unmasked itself to be a flat-out anti-government campaign, led (of all people) by veteran opposition politician Suthep Thuagsuban, accompanied by a motley crew of ultra-nationalists and other anti-Thaksin forces.
And with nightly delusions of grandeur on the rally stages by this self-styled people’s champion, it became clear very quickly that the the title of his movement, “People’s Democratic Reform Committee” (or “People′s Committee for Absolute Democracy With the King As Head of State” to translate their curiously differing Thai name), is a complete misnomer.
What Suthep and company are suggesting – especially the appointed “People’s Council” – at the cost of electoral democracy is a far cry from the “clean democracy” they’re demanding, it’s a return to the political dark ages of Thailand.
The anti-election thuggery of last Sunday spoke volumes, when mobs obstructed advance voting in all of Bangkok and parts of the South and thus denied their fellow Thai citizens their right to vote. And we have to expect more of that on election day.
The protests have maintained since November by regular escalations ordered by Suthep, most recently with the so-called “Bangkok Shutdown” in mid-January. 10 people have been killed and hundreds have been injured in clashes and the potential for violence remains high as tensions are rising on a daily basis. We have to ask, though, what will Suthep’s final escalation be?
The opposition Democrat Party, undeniably linked to the protests, has decided to be part of the problem rather than to be part of the solution by boycotting Sunday’s election and shunning an opportunity to reform itself.
Granted, this coming election won’t solve the political stalemate. But to deny your fellow countrymen the right to vote and to paint everybody who does cast their ballot as ‘traitorous’ is not the way forward. The reason why the protesters are not winning over the majority is because they have never assured anybody’s freedom and liberty. Respect their vote, even if it’s a “No” vote.
Thailand’s political crisis is a man-made disaster. The fault lines in this power struggle run through all political institutions in and outside the democratic playing field, with everybody involved always eager to outdo the other.
With each year, these fault lines become more visible and an evolving society becomes more aware of that. But frontlines are hardening and the re-weaved social fabric of the nation is being torn apart again. This country has never been so polarized in recent times as it is now, and never so close to the brink.
What remains is for us to say no to undemocratic power grabs, no to disenfranchisement, no to the false narrative of “good people” and “noble causes”, and no to impunity for political violence!
We’re still battling over how we are going to define the future of our country – and more people should have more freedom to have their say, not less.
Saksith Saiyasombut is a Thai blogger and freelance foreign correspondent. He writes about Thai politics and current affairs since 2010 and reports for international news media like Channel NewsAsia. Read his full bio on about.me/saksith.