By Tulsathit Taptim
If Prayut Chan-o-cha’s political camp prevails on Sunday, his transformation from coup-maker and political referee to a leader restricted by normalised parliamentary and legal rules will be just steps away. If not, his opponents, the self-proclaimed “pro-democracy” camp, may surmount what now seem huge obstacles and take control.
Whichever scenario prevails, we can look at it two ways.
Either a big change has occurred, or no change at all. Either Thailand has entered a new era, or it is returning to square one. Either “the people will have spoken”, or the people will have spoken for someone else and not themselves.
Either the country will continue to be ruled by Prayut, or the old guard will return. Deep divisions will remain in either scenario, possibly simmering under the surface or, worse, breaking into the open in the same manner as the 2010 red-shirt uprising or the mass protests before the downfall of the Yingluck government.
Such political nightmares, marked by violence and severe disruption of daily life and business, are not the only things we might pessimistically expect. Our bitter national divide has politicised and hampered good policies, or even aborted great development ideas entirely. Moreover, it has foiled attempts to create political transparency, by allowing the corrupt to cry “conspiracy” or “persecution” in their defence.
Prayut’s return to power would be cheered by half of Thailand, but it would be accompanied by accusations of being engineered by unfair rules written by his coup regime. A win for his opponents would generate euphoria among the other half, but the path ahead would be strewn with landmines all the same. Uncertainties would remain in either scenario.
This is what the zero-sum game of democracy gives us. If voters are not mature enough, it can turn strong principles into something else. The need to win and retain power at all costs can overshadow everything else and open the door for much malice to sneak in. It can generate great contempt for “the other side”, something genuine democracy is not supposed to do.
Proposals for a “national government” have been dismissed as unfeasible or ridiculed as a “loser’s gambit”. But if democracy’s biggest flaw is that the wrong people get the important jobs – like minister of education or of justice – what’s wrong with eradicating the winner-takes-all element and embracing a new governmental structure that allows qualified people to lead important ministries regardless of their “colour”?
Sunday is unlikely to produce a national government. The winner is unlikely to say, “Well, the Democrats and Pheu Thai can actually work together. The former have good policies on child welfare so they can head the Education Ministry, while the latter has strong ideas on healthcare so it should oversee the Public Health Ministry.” What will likely happen instead is that if the Democrats get a chance to control education, someone less qualified than Pheu Thai will handle public health, and vice versa.
Democracy, they say, is for the people. The truth is, Thai-style democracy is not in the best interests of the people. No matter what pro-democracy rhetoric would have us believe, far fewer voters will enter the ballot booths on Sunday thinking about education competitiveness or drug problems than those hell bent on backing individuals that have little to do with their daily lives.
Questioning zero-sum-game democracy is a risky business, not least because democracy is practised everywhere, including in global superpowers. Again, the question is whether Thais are mature enough to embrace it and not disrupt their own development or curtail their own best interests in the process.
Raising the maturity question can risks even more of a backlash. Most preachers of democracy say that a period of wrongdoing must be painfully endured before the system eventually becomes workable. Any suggestion that voters may fall for highly divisive and damaging propaganda that goes with the territory tends to be irritably dismissed by democracy idealists. They insist that the zero-sum game is necessary to promote checks and balances and keep everyone on their toes.
Whether Thailand can have strong checks and balances that keep ruling politicians on their toes is the biggest question. And it will remain a major question after Sunday, no matter who wins. Like they say, we hope for the best and fear the worst. Thai democracy, though, has a way of generating more fear than hope.