The Two Have the Same Problems

Thailand’s parliamentary elections on December 23 provided fresh evidence (if evidence is still needed) of the futility of military intervention as a means of changing the fundamental political trends of a nation.

Thai voters gave the largest number of seats in parliament to the Peoples Power Party (PPP) which comprises supporters of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra who was overthrown in a September 2006 coup.

The Thai military barred Thaksin and 110 of his closest associates from contesting the polls. His Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) was also disbanded by the generals on grounds of “corruption”.

But the PPP, which campaigned on a platform of ending Thaksin’s exile and exclusion from politics, won convincingly despite the military’s opposition. Quite clearly, Thai officials did not go beyond skewing the election rules against Thailand’s PPP and the actual balloting was not significantly rigged.

Thailand has witnessed 18 military coups since 1932. The Economist recently referred to Thailand as “Southeast Asia’s Pakistan”.

The fundamental problem in both countries is the same. It has an overbearing military, which often receives support from the urban elite and professional middle class, and argues that the poor peasants simply do not elect the right people.

Thailand’s civilian politicians, including Thaksin, are obviously not perfect. But isn’t the point of democracy to let people choose whomever they like and then vote them out of power upon discovering that their chosen leaders did not fulfil the people’s aspirations?

The problem is that the populist politicians such as Thaksin (and in Pakistan’s case the Bhutto family or even Nawaz Sharif), whom the army and the professional elite dislikes, do not necessarily disappoint their voters.

As The Economist explains, “Middle-class Bangkokians, who are as snooty about their country cousins as any metropolitan elite anywhere, often say that ‘uneducated’ rural voters… were bribed and tricked into voting for Thaksin.

“But rural voters were quite rational in handing him landslide victories in 2001 and 2005. He was Thailand’s first party leader to promise and deliver a comprehensive set of policies aimed at the mass of voters.

“The allegations of corruption, conflicts of interest and vote-buying that surround him are serious but hardly unusual: such practices are endemic in Thai politics.”

In other words, the poor who vote for populist leaders actually benefit from their policies even though these might not impress army generals or World Bank economists.

Successful third world democracies are born out of cooperation between politicians with vote banks and middle class professionals with ideas about good governance. In countries such as Pakistan and Thailand, however, such cooperation is scant.

Middle class

The middle class dismisses politicians with refrains like “They are all the same” but is unable to create an alternative political leadership because vote banks are not easy to create or destroy.

“During the 1960s Pakistan’s urban middle class preferred Ayoub Khan and his top-down Convention Muslim League only to find that the party had no roots by the time of the 1970 general elections.

After the peasantry had voted the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto into office, during the 1970s, the middle class preferred Air Marshal Asghar Khan and his Tehrik-e-Istiqlal (TI).

The 1977 Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) campaign revealed that the anti-PPP vote bank was mobilised not by TI or Asghar Khan but by the Islamist religious parties.

After the end of Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship in 1988, and a concerted decade-long effort by the military-intelligence combine to break the back of the PPP, Benazir Bhutto still commanded more votes than the middle class’s new choice, Nawaz Sharif.

By the time Sharif created his own vote bank, the urban professionals had turned on him and preferred Imran Khan and his Tehrik-e-Insaf.

Even now, it appears that the educated elite that supported Pervez Musharraf right after the 1999 coup has now shifted its loyalty to the anti-politician politicians rather than putting their support where the majority of voters seem inclined.

Popular politicians may not rise to the “high” standards of the educated elite but they have a way of connecting with the people. Instead of constantly judging politicians with an unrealistic yardstick, urban professionals should embrace the political process.

They can act as pressure groups within the major popular parties rather than a loose grouping that helps discredit popular leaders only to pave the way for further military intervention in politics.

Gulf News, December 26, 2007