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Democracy is not just about elections

We need to give our elected representatives an incentive to favour the public interest over their own

Election campaign posters and signboards have gone up in different areas of the city amid calls for urgent political reform and opposition to the February 2 general election.

Most of the signs belong to the Pheu Thai Party, which has been actively pushing for the election to go ahead as scheduled. Notably absent are campaign posters for the Democrat Party, which has boycotted the upcoming poll, citing an urgent need for political reform to restore public confidence in politicians and their parties.

For some, democracy is synonymous with elections, but for others it is about more than just voting. Amid growing anti-government protests in Egypt last July, US President Barack Obama told then Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi that "democracy is about more than elections".

"It is also about ensuring that the voices of all Egyptians are heard and represented by their government, including the many Egyptians demonstrating throughout the country," said Obama. His words echoed those of American political scientist and social activist Howard Zinn who, in arguing for civil disobedience, said: "Democracy is not just a counting up of votes; it is a counting up of actions."

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.

Given Thailand's evolving relationship between voters and politicians, our democracy needs time to become mature. Hopefully, we are slowly moving towards a time when selfish and corrupt representatives will fail to get re-elected, rejected by voters whose decisions are based on personal conscience rather than private gain.

In the meantime, we have to live with a system dominated by politicians who seem to care little about the interests of the people they are supposed to represent. If we cannot make them change their ways, we must replace them with truer representatives. Politicians need to be called to account by politically mature voters and a check-and-balance system that is stronger and free from political intervention.


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