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Elections without checks and balances aren't democracy

The Economist magazine's cover story this week has drawn considerable interest here in Thailand. Both the caretaker government and protesting People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) could cite the story to fit their respective agendas. But the real issue remains critical: What is wrong with democracy here? How can it be revived?

Democracy is a powerful but imperfect mechanism, so said founders of modern democracy such as James Madison and John Stuart Mill… "something that needed to be designed carefully in order to harness human creativity but also to check human perversity, and then kept in good working order, constantly oiled and worked upon," according to The Economist's six-page review.

Those attending the PDRC's "reform forum" would undoubtedly endorse this vital proposition: "The need for hard-headedness is particularly pressing when establishing a nascent democracy. One reason why so many democratic experiments have failed recently is that they put too much emphasis on elections and too little on the other essential features of democracy."

The caretaker government has justified most of its actions by citing the fact that it won the election with a majority in the House of Representatives and that any challenge to its power would be considered "illegitimate".

The protesters have argued that winning an election isn't a "blank cheque" and that being in power doesn't give you the authority to be involved in or to ignore corrupt practices.

The Economist's report has this to say: "The power of the state needs to be checked, for instance, and individual rights such as freedom of speech and freedom to organise must be guaranteed."

Thai politicians may call it "the right of the majority" to ram through legislation and regulations that serve the powers-that-be's own interests, but it's known universally as "majoritarianism" - described by The Economist as "the notion that winning an election entitles the majority to do whatever it pleases".

The disastrous decision by the ruling Pheu Thai Party to push through the "all-embracing" amnesty bill - seen as a bid to absolve former premier Thaksin Shinawatra from corruption convictions - was a perfect example of how the temptation of "majoritarianism" can blind politicians to what democracy is all about.

The report seems to have Thailand in mind when it makes the point that corruption is one of the main ailments that can cause democracy to fail in any country.

"Robust constitutions not only promote long-term stability, reducing the likelihood that disgruntled minorities will take against the regime. They also bolster the struggle against corruption, the bane of developing countries," it says.

One of the main reasons the ongoing protest has drawn an unexpected number of middle-class working people out onto the streets against an "elected government" is the conviction that elections, held under the tight control of the money and power of the ruling party, have failed to prevent corruption in high places. And if elections prolong the rule of the corrupt, then something is seriously wrong with Thai democracy.

And when the ruling party publicly announced that it would not accept the rulings of the Constitutional Court and also belittled the orders of the Anti-Corruption Commission, the number of protesters soared. To the angry and frustrated citizens, the "Thaksin regime" respects the "democratic rules" only if independent agencies rule in its favour. A negative ruling draws the ire of the government, which invariably cites "double standards" to avoid punishment.

The protesters may find confirmation of their belief in a statement contained in The Economist report: "The people who most need to learn this lesson are the architects of new democracies: they must recognise that robust checks and balances are just as vital to the establishment of a healthy democracy as the right to vote."

The call for "reform before election" will continue to be the protest theme while the Yingluck government continues to use the term "democracy" (whatever that means, with or without checks and balances) to justify its struggle to remain in power.


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