What constitutes a democracy? The future of electoral democracy in Thailand looks grim
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What constitutes a democracy? The future of electoral democracy in Thailand looks grim

The Nation in an editorial on January 2, 2014 with the headline “Democracy is not just about elections”. Key excerpt:

In a representative democracy, elected MPs are supposed to represent the interest of their electorate, and also the public interest. In mature democracies, voters tend to base their choice on political and ethical values, rather than offers of rewards from community leaders. As a result, elected representatives are able to do their jobs as genuine representatives. Also, strong check-and-balance systems in mature democracies help to weed out corrupt or self-serving politicians. In many cases, such politicians are pressured by the public to leave office and they often fail to get re-elected.

Unfortunately, Thailand’s political system still lacks the important qualities that make a mature democracy. Thai politicians rarely resign their seats after being caught in wrongdoing. When their legitimacy is challenged, they merely point out that they were elected – a “magical” mantra of legitimacy. Recent actions of many of our elected representatives, such as backing a controversial bill to absolve politicians convicted of corruption and serious crimes during political conflicts, led to widespread anger. In comparison, bills to raise taxes on the wealthy and set up a social safety net for poorer Thais failed to attract much interest from the same politicians.

Ideally, “democracy is government of the people, by the people, for the people”, as Abraham Lincoln put it. Elected politicians should act as representatives of all the people, not just certain groups. This means they should also heed the voice of those who did not vote for them.

BP: Perhaps, The Nation should consider that enough voters are not that upset about what representative has done. Just because the writer of the editorial thinks the representative should be voted, it doesn’t mean others thing that way. Similarly, if enough voters decide that there is a better alternative, they will vote for that person and that person will win. This is the key. There has to be a better alternative. Just like Suthep was hardly the ideal representative of an anti-corruption, anti-politician movement, but many people went along with him, but perhaps they decided there was no better alternative. Voters make judgement calls all the time.

There was repeated talk before the coup that democracy is more than just elections. BP agrees with this – see endorsement of this in 2007 – but as blogged earlier this year:

Democracy is not just about elections, but it is not a democracy without elections. The second group (PDRC) favors suspending democracy (not effectively suspending, but actually suspending), which Faudi acknowledges, but argues these are two competing definitions of democracy. They are not. Nominating an unelected person as PM to rule the country, having an unelected People’s Council to rewrite the rules, and having an interim constitution – which would not be voted on by parliament and would supposedly mean the tearing up of the current Constitution – imposed by Suthep and the PDRC is not democracy. It is a coup. Substance does matter and an election is a matter of substance and not just form. Yes, the PDRC talk of elections later, but the only way they can actually win is they substantially change the rules to game the system to get rid of “Thaksinocracy” so the Democrats have a chance in winning an election again.

BP: In the end, we got a military coup as there was no other way for the establishment forces to get their own way. There appears a view that somehow we can get a perfect democracy by having the military instil it from above. This democracy, which we will get next year or sometime in the future, will almost certainly have various restrictions on the power of elected representatives yet the military junta has the absolute power to do everything.

We still have the question, what constitutes a democracy? There is no agreed upon definition, but a political scientist has produced the following various definitions. Below are some of the more modern definitions over the last 35 years:

  • And of the practice: “Rule by the people where ‘the people’ includes all adult citizens not excluded by some generally agreed upon and reasonable disqualifying factor . . . . ‘Rule’ means that public policies are determined either directly by vote of the electorate or indirectly by officials freely elected at reasonably frequent intervals and by a process in which each voter who chooses to vote counts equally . . . and in which a plurality is determinative .” (Pennock, 1979, 9)
  • “The competitive electoral context, with several political parties organizing the alternatives that face the voters, is the identifying property of the contemporary democratic process . . . . [D]emocratic systems [are] . . . characterized by competitive elections in which most citizens are eligible to participate.” (Powell 1982, 3)
  • “[D]emocracy is a form of institutionalization of continual conflicts . . . [and] of uncertainty, of subjecting all interests to uncertainty . . . .” (Przeworski 1986, 58)
  • A ‘democratic regime’ is “first and foremost a set of procedural rules for arriving at collective decisions in a way which accommodates and facilitates the fullest possible participation of interested parties.” (Bobbio 1987, 19)
  • “Democracy is a system in which parties lose elections. There are parties: divisions of interest, values and opinions. There is competition, organized by rules. And there are periodic winners and losers.” (Przeworski 1991, 10)
  • “Modern political democracy is a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting indirectly through the competition and cooperation of their elected representatives.” (Schmitter and Karl 1991, 76)
  • “According to civic republicanism, the state acts legitimately only if it furthers the ‘common good’ of the political community. . . . [C]ivic republicanism embraces an ongoing deliberative process, inclusive of all cultures, values, needs, and interests, to arrive at the public good. Civic republicans see the development of a conception of the common good as a fundamental purpose of democracy–a purpose necessary for individual self-identity and self-fulfillment. Civic republicanism also posits that no individual acting in her political capacity should be subservient to other political actors. Hence, the theory does not equate the public good that legitimates government action with majority rule. Social consensus about what is best for the community as a community, not as the aggregation of individuals’ private interests, is the defining feature of the common good.” (Seidenfeld 1992, 1528-29; italics in original)
  • “Democracy is a political system in which different groups are legally entitled to compete for power and in which institutional power holders are elected by the people and are responsible to the people.” (Vanhannen 1997, 31)
  • Democracy is “a state where political decisions are taken by and with the consent, or the active participation even, of the majority of the People. . . . [L]iberalism, though recognizing that in the last resort the ‘legal majority’ must prevail, tries to protect the minorities as it does the civil rights of the individual, and by much the same methods. . . . Liberal democracy is qualified democracy. The ultimate right of the majority to have its way is conceded, but that way is made as rough as possible.” (Finer 1997, 1568-1570)
  • “We begin by defining formal, participatory and social democracy. By formal democracy we mean a political system that combines four features: regular free and fair elections, universal suffrage, accountability of the state’s administrative organs to the elected representatives, and effective guarantees for freedom of expression. . . . [F]ormal democratic countries will differ considerably in social policies that reduce social and economic inequality. We therefore introduce two additional dimensions: high levels of participation without systematic differences across social categories (for example, class, ethnicity, gender) and increasing equality in social and economic outcomes. (Huber, Rueschemeyer & Stephens 1997, 323-324)
  • Democracy provides opportunities for 1) effective participation, 2) equality in voting, 3) gaining enlightened understanding, 4) exercising final control [by the people–WR] over the agenda , and 5) inclusion of adults.” The political institutions that are necessary to pursue these goals are “1) elected officials, 2) free, fair and frequent elections, 3) freedom of expression, 4) alternative sources of information, 5) associational autonomy, and 6) inclusive citizenship.” (Dahl 1998, 38 & 85)
  • Democracy is “governance by leaders whose authority is based on a limited mandate from a universal electorate that selects among genuine alternatives and has some rights to political participation and opposition.” (Danziger 1998, 159)
  • The fundamental idea of democratic, political legitimacy is that the authorization to exercise state power must arise from the collective decisions of the equal members of a society who are governed by that power.” Collective decisions can be either aggregative (based on counting preferences) or deliberative. “[A] decision is collective just in case it emerges from arrangements of binding collective choice that establish conditions of free public reasoning among equals who are governed by the decisions. In the deliberative conception, then, citizens treat one another as equals not by giving equal consideration to interests–perhaps some interests ought to be discounted . . .–but by offering them justifications for the exercise of collective power . . . .” (Cohen 1998, 185-6; italics in original)
  • Democrats are committed to rule by the people. They insist that no aristocrat, monarch, philosopher, bureaucrat, expert, or religious leader has the right, in virtue of such status, to force people to accept a particular conception of their proper common life. People should decide for themselves, via appropriate procedures of collective decision, what their collective business should be.” “Communitarian democrats make wrongheaded assumptions both about the nature of democracy and about its appropriate place in everyday life. . . . [P]articipation plays a necessary but circumscribed role in ordering social relations justly. Valuable as democratic participation is in managing the power dimensions of collective activities, it is not the point of the exercise.” (Shapiro 1999, 29-30 & 23)
  • “[I]n a democracy important public decisions on questions of law and policy depend, directly or indirectly, upon public opinion formally expressed by citizens of the community, the vast bulk of whom have equal political rights.” (Weale 1999, 14)

BP: That reference to Dahl is to a more recent book of his, but his earlier book Democracy and its Critics is one of the most cited books on democracy (over 6,000 citations) and some view he was the world’s top political scientist. He certainly was one of the most influential on the topic of democracy. Below is a summary as cited in this book on democracy:



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BP: A few comments:

A.  Section 35 of the interim constitution states the Constitutional Drafting Committee shall draft a constitution which covers the following:

(2) That the form of administration is a democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State which is appropriate for Thai society

(3) Effective mechanisms in preventing, investigating, and eliminating corruption and misbehaviour in the public and private sectors including mechanisms to regulate and control the use of state power so that it is of benefit to nation as a whole and to the people 

(4) Effective mechanisms to prevent and to investigate so that those who are sentenced/convicted or were there has been a legal order regarding corrupt actions or misbehaviour or actions to make an election so that it is not honest or fair are not able to take up political positions in any circumstances

(5) Effective mechanisms so that government officials especially political office holders and political parties are able to undertake their actions or carry out their duties independently/freely without control or being led by persons contrary to the law

(6) Effective mechanisms to promote and strengthen the rule of law, and promote morality, ethics, good governance in all sectors and at all levels

(7) Effective mechanisms to change the structure and to propel the economic and social system so that it is fair and lasting and prevents administering which aims to the politically popular that may cause losses to the economic system of the country and the people in the long-term 

(8) Effective mechanisms in the use of state money so that it is worthwhile [kind of like ‘value for money’] and responds to the interests of the public of the people and consistent with the financial resources of the country and there are effective investigative mechanisms in place that are able to disclose the state spending 

(9) Effective mechanisms to prevent the destroying of important principles that will be set out in the constitution

BP: You will notice very little about human rights, freedom of speech. On (2), who decides what is appropriate for Thai society? This is simply an endorsement of Thai-style democracy, but how closely will fit with the criteria of what constitutes a democracy?

BP agrees that there should be effective investigate mechanisms in place that are able to disclose the amount of state spending in (8), but this is because in a democracy it is important that voters have access to adequate information to allow them to make decision. This is one issue which BP believes can be strengthened. However, when looking at the combination of (7) and (8), we are talking about what may cause losses in the long-term and value for money. Many policies will cause losses as they involve the spending of public money. The question then is whether that spending is worth it? A lot of money will be spent on various projects, how does one decide whether the spending meets these criteria? Does the spending on the Gripen fighter jets met this criteria? Chula’s Puangthong Pawakapan has some related comments on a paper for ISEAS (at 6 and 7 respectively):

Many intellectuals and civic groups repeatedly argue that holding elections does not necessarily mean adhering to democratic principles, and thus seek to undermine the legitimacy of electoral politics and the principle of one-man-one-vote. Recent research confirms that vote-buying is no longer a decisive factor in determining election outcome. The behaviour of the poor and rural-based voters is increasingly motivated by community development projects, but they continue to be seen as being easily bribed by unsustainable populist policies. The idea of “vote buy-ing” became a simplistic cliché but an emotive political weapon against rural-based voters. In addition, the urban middle-class believe the populist policies will cause long-term damage to the Thai economy. However, they fail to see how multi-million baht projects catering to the interest of urbanites and industrialists have been con-tributing to uneven development and constitute exploitation of taxpayers. For many of these urbanites, a desirable political system does not necessary have to be the same as a western-style democracy with respect to freedom, liberties and equality of every citizen, but it must be clean from corrupt politicians and, hence, be ruled by moral people.


Furthermore, on 29 July 2014, the NCPO put a stop to a number of local em-powering projects initiated by Yingluck’s government because these were deemed populist. They include the Village/Community Development Fund or the Small and Medium Enterprise Development Fund, the Local Entrepreneur Assistance Fund and the Regional Town Development Fund. The NCPO also transferred the Women Development Fund to be under the Ministry of Interior and the Farmer Council to be under the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperation. Both of these will be evaluated further to see they should be terminated permanently.

BP: If an elected government was to stop a program of a previous government because they campaigned against it in an election or decided that it is no longer worthwhile that it it is one thing, but the implication of Section 35 is outside bodies determining policies.  In addition, (9) implies that a future government will not be able to change the constitution if changing the constitution goes against the principles in Section 35. Will this give voters or their representatives control of the agenda? No.

2. One of the arguments prior to the coup was that Thailand was not a real democracy. Pornpimol Kanchanalak in an op-ed in The Nation earlier this year:

So the deafening excuse of our Dear Leader and her administration for their stubborn insistence on sticking in office – that they are defending Thailand’s democracy – is a self-serving perversion. We have elections, and a simulacrum of a democracy, but we are not a democracy. The highway-robbery of our tax-money that has spread and taken root everywhere has turned Thailand into a kleptocratic nation. That’s why protesters are calling for reform, before a new election. Without a reform, a new election is not going to turn our kleptocracy into a democracy, for there is much more to democracy than an election.

If there was nothing more to it, the world would have to prepare to hail North Korea’s new democracy on March 9, when the country holds its general election.

BP: Indeed, Thailand was on the verge of becoming like North Korea before we were saved by the military coup…

More seriously, BP views that Thai democracy had its flaws. There were problems with freedom of speech, dominance of unelected bodies taking control of policies outside the purview of elected representatives, but are of the proposals that were put forward by the PDRC before the coup and that are talked about by coup-aligned academics actually make Thailand more democratic. Talk of representatives from professional organizations means that a minority will have a greater voice that the majority. For example, in Hong Kong, there are 210,531 voters for 30 functional constituencies vs 1,815,488 voters for the 35 geographical constituencies. The disparity is clear.