Southeast Asia struggles to maintain legitimacy
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Southeast Asia struggles to maintain legitimacy

Thailand is not alone. Cambodia, Malaysia and Indonesia all face rising questions over future of democracy, writes Asia Sentinel’s A. Lin Neumann 

If no one agrees to the rules, it’s hard to play the game. This is increasingly true in Southeast Asia’s various democratic or semi-democratic states, most acutely now in Thailand, but the dynamic is evident in Malaysia, Cambodia and even Indonesia.

The antagonists in Thailand’s intractable political mess have no way out. The main actors in this tragedy will not even talk to each other.

On one side, the opposition Democrat Party and its allied protest movement have unilaterally declared that the elected government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is illegitimate and corrupt and that elections are not the answer. They call her hideous and vulgar names, act as if their crowds represent all of Thailand and try to coax the military into overthrowing the government. The protesters and their backers in the bureaucracy and business community succeeded in muddying the February 2 snap election just enough to delay the results and make it likely that the courts, which seemingly favor the Democrats, will try to unseat Yingluck.

The Democrats are battling what they see as the menacing power of Yingluck’s big brother, ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who redefined Thai politics by using his wealth to build a political machine that was independent of the coalition of business, politicians and the royal family that has held power in Thailand since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932.

Thaksin represents a fundamental threat to the Democrats not because he is corrupt but because he shifted power from the Bangkok status quo to his machine. Rural voters have been empowered by the populist policies he has pushed since he was first elected premier in 2001 and they keep voting for whatever party puts itself forward as the Thaksin party, despite his overthrow by the military in 2006.

In this impasse, neither side is clean. The Democrats, who have ironically abandoned democracy for now, are backed by murky forces funding the expensive protest rallies and manipulating the permanent bureaucracy of government – commissions, agencies, the courts – to their ends. In the same way, Thaksin defies his court conviction for corruption from self-imposed exile, uses his money to fund – and likely enrich – pro-Thaksin Red Shirt leaders and clings to power through proxies.

In this blind political alley neither side can agree on what constitutes legitimacy. If elections do not work because the opposition refuses to allow them to be carried out successfully, democracy itself may be mortally wounded. The kind of periodic military dictatorships that ruled Thailand until 1992 – and briefly in 2006 – are no longer acceptable to the international or local community. A way forward must be found.

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