Is Thai democracy really so bad?

With the brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra now serving as Prime-Minister, Thailand’s democracy is set for another round of turmoil. Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s personal links with Thaksin will give the election-denying People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) a much needed energy boost. How far they are willing to push their ill-defined agenda remains to be seen.

Sometimes it can be useful to step back a little from the day-to-day battles of political life. The battles that have convulsed Thailand’s political elites over recent months and years may lead many to conclude that Thailand’s democracy is in crisis. It would be easy to dismiss Thailand as a country where democratic institutions have shallow roots.

But perhaps there are deeper democratic currents that deserve more attention.

A recent paper by Robert Albritton and Thawilwadee Bureekul examines the “state of democracy in Thailand.” (A draft copy of the paper is available here.) Its starting point is the observation that “democracy requires mass approval” in order to function effectively. This approval is not sufficient for a sustainable democracy – especially in the face of “determined elites who have access to instruments of military power” – but it does appear to be a necessary condition.

Does this mass approval exist in Thailand? According to Asian Barometer surveys cited by Albritton and Thawilwadee, it does. Surveys conducted in 2002 and 2006 suggest very high approval ratings for democracy in Thailand. In 2002, 90.5 percent indicated that they were “satisfied or very satisfied with the way democracy works in Thailand.” In the 2006 survey, undertaken just a few months before the military coup and in a context of political turmoil,  the figure was 83.8 percent. Results from several other survey questions point to ”high levels of ‘consumer satisfaction’ with the status of democracy in Thailand.”

Asian Barometer conducts surveys in a number of East Asian countries. So how does Thailand compare? I have not been able to access their full survey results, but one research paper they have produced has some very interesting findings. Here is an extract (pp 12-13):

As the first panel in Table 2 shows, the percentages of respondents expressing dissatisfaction with democracy vary to a significant degree: from nearly one-half in Taiwan (49%) and the Philippines (47%), one-third in Korea (38%) and Mongolia (30%) to only one-tenth in Thailand (10%). Those expressing satisfaction vary considerably from large majorities in Thailand (91%), Mongolia (70%) and Korea (62%) to bare majorities in the Philippines (53%) and Taiwan (51%). When these negative and positive ratings are compared, it is evident that East Asians tend to see their current democratic systems in a positive light.

The second panel in Table 2 shows that the percentages reporting that the current democratic regime performs better than in the authoritarian past vary considerably across the countries: from an overwhelming majority in Thailand (91%), large majorities in Mongolia (66%), Taiwan (66%) and the Philippines (60%) to a bare majority in Korea (52%). Those perceiving that the democratic system performs worse than the old authoritarian system, on the other hand, constitute minorities in all the countries. The size of these minorities, however, varies considerably from a very tiny minority in Thailand (5%) to sizeable minorities in Mongolia (23%), Taiwan (24%) and the Philippines (28%) and a large minority in Korea (39%). Overall, in all five East Asian new democracies, more people evaluate the newly installed democracy to perform better than the old authoritarian system.

Of course, there is always room for considerable caution when it comes to surveys of complex political sentiments. But there are some good indications here that Thailand enjoys a strong and deep current of popular support for democracy. Satisfaction with democracy appears to be significantly greater in Thailand than it does in some of its East Asian neighbours.

The current political crisis in Thailand has been engineered by opposition forces who are determined to paint Thailand’s democratic system as corrupt and ineffective. One of the main goals of their recent political protests has been to create an atmosphere of political crisis that undermines local and international faith in Thailand’s democratic processes. The way the government has responded to some of these political challenges has made the discrediting job of the opposition forces that much easier.

But perhaps the “crisis” in Bangkok is taking place against an often un-recognised backdrop of satisfaction with the way the Thailand’s democratic system works. Of course there are other political sentiments. The paper by Albritton and Thawilwadee argues, at length, that there is a culture in Thailand “that promotes inequality as the foundation of the society” and which consistently paints democratically elected governments as lacking in moral virtue. These are the sentiments that the PAD taps into so effectively. But the broad-based satisfaction with democratic processes documented in the Asian Barometer surveys helps to explain why the PAD’s authoritarian “new politics” has such limited electoral appeal.

Democracy seems to be very popular in Thailand.

About Andrew Walker