Elections in Thailand

Neighboring Thailand goes to the polls today (Sunday) with the hope of resolving the festering political conflict that has taken an increasingly violent turn in the last three months. The opposition is not just boycotting these elections; it is threatening to disrupt the voting itself. The government has offered to postpone the elections, if necessary, provided the opposition agrees to a moratorium on demonstrations. But the latter is unyielding in its demand for the resignation of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and the immediate handover of government to a provisional “people’s council.”

This political impasse should be of interest to us Filipinos because, on two previous occasions, we were more or less in the same situation as the Thais today. In the course of challenging the right of the incumbent to continue wielding the powers of government, we sought to recast the meaning of legitimacy in such a way that it does not rest solely, or primarily, on winning an election.

The first was when the forces that formed around Cory Aquino’s campaign against Ferdinand Marcos in the snap polls of February 1986 rejected the purported results of the election. That election was supposed to produce convincing proof that Marcos still enjoyed the popular support of the Filipino people. Ignoring calls for a boycott, the then opposition, which grew out of the protest movement spawned by the Ninoy Aquino assassination, opted to take on the electoral challenge even as its leaders knew they would be cheated.

The second time we unseated an incumbent president was in January 2001. When the impeachment trial of then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada abruptly ended without producing a decision, the venue of political contestation shifted from the halls of the Senate to the parliament of the streets once more. As

Erap began to lose control of the levers of government, he offered to hold a snap election to settle the question of political legitimacy. It was too late.  His voice was drowned out by the clamor for his immediate ouster.

Seeing the looming power gap as a stage fraught with danger and uncertainty, forces loyal to then Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo moved quickly to install her as constitutional successor in the light of the incumbent president’s growing inability to enforce his orders. The outcome was a masterful coup not just against Erap but also against those who had hoped the crisis would be the ignition point for a comprehensive reform of the whole system of corrupt governance.

Although Edsa 2 tried very hard to mimic Edsa 1 as a direct expression of people power, there were fundamental differences between the two that are worth noting. Legitimacy was not a problem for Cory Aquino, whereas it remained so for Gloria Macapagal Arroyo throughout the more than nine years she was in office. It is useful to dig into how this happened.  It may allow us to understand better the events that are unfolding in Thailand today.

Cory could not draw her mandate for the presidency from the snap election. The official count produced by the Marcos-controlled Commission on Elections showed that it was the dictator who won that election. Ninoy’s widow had no choice but to assume the presidency under the concept of a revolutionary government. Accordingly, a provisional constitution was hastily written, giving her immense powers to dismantle the infrastructure of the Marcos dictatorship and pave the way for the “restoration” of democracy under a regular constitution. Except for a handful of Marcos loyalists who refused to recognize her as president, the rest of the Filipino people accepted the self-description of the Cory government as a revolutionary transition government.

In contrast, Arroyo could not draw her mandate from people power because she was never a part of it, unlike Cory who became its symbol. Thus, any attempt on Arroyo’s part to

assume the presidency on the basis of the revolutionary act of the people would have been rejected outright. The only route available therefore was to justify her succession as something explicitly mandated by the Constitution. The ensuing narrative thus took the following form: President Erap had become incapacitated. Therefore, Vice President Arroyo had the duty to succeed.

The problem with this account is that, so long as it tried to justify the succession in constitutional terms, it had to explain how the vacancy in the presidency occurred in the first instance. “Constructive resignation,” the concept subsequently conjured by the Supreme Court to account for Erap’s exit from the presidency, never quite took hold.

Legitimacy in modern political systems, as we may see, is no longer something that is guaranteed by elections or by rulings of constitutional courts. Yingluck Shinawatra and her brother Thaksin both took power with huge electoral margins. And yet their hold on governmental power remained shaky. On the other hand, royal endorsement, such as the opposition Democrat Party in Thailand seems to enjoy, no longer suffices either as a source of legitimacy. That is why they are having a hard time winning elections.

One can almost foresee the dysfunctional return of the Thai military to politics in the wake of the Thai impasse. This does not solve the problem of political legitimacy; it only postpones it. Thai politicians must realize, sooner or later, that political systems in the modern world can no longer rest on tried and tested means for securing legitimacy. What they are looking for in the final analysis is a way of justifying political power that is appropriate to the contingencies of politics in a modern and more complex Thai society.

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