Through the prism of Thai politics

In previous columns, I have argued that Thailand’s attempts to grapple with the complex problem of legitimacy since 2001 illuminate for us the roots of the crisis that rocked our society during the presidencies of Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada and of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA). They prod us to reflect on the exigencies of our own political system and its future.

Erap’s presidency was bedeviled by accusations of cronyism and corruption; GMA’s by charges of corruption and excessive patronage. In both instances, the middle class and the business and political elite took the lead in mounting street protests. The Church and the military were enticed to enter the fray as arbiters of the political conflict. The Supreme Court was likewise brought in to provide constitutional support for solutions that were being decided outside the normal routines of the political system.

Erap survived the impeachment trial but lost the presidency through a civilian-military coup that was legalized by the high court. GMA survived every attempt to unseat her by deploying the immense resources of the presidency to keep the military loyal, but found herself in detention on charges of plunder when she was no longer president.

Legitimacy is essentially the right to govern. In modern societies, this right is regulated by law, particularly by a country’s constitution.  The constitution prescribes, among other things, the minimum qualifications for public office, and defines the powers and functions of government positions. Elections are the standard route to political legitimacy in constitutional democracies. But, in the transition to political modernity, societies like ours discover that the equation of legitimacy with elections is contingent, meaning, it is not necessary.

Elections do not always guarantee one’s right to govern or hold political office. One can win elections with an overwhelming mandate—like Erap and Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra—and later lose the right to govern.  One can seize power by a coup, but not be able to hold on to it. Even dictators are hard-pressed to legitimize their rule. Legitimacy is a formula for justifying a state of affairs that the people can accept. Politics is perhaps the only subsystem of society that needs to constantly generate legitimacy within itself.

You can’t use elections as a basis for legitimacy if people know you have used money to buy votes or bribe election officials to rig the results. Indeed, you may defend yourself by saying this has to be proven in court or before the Commission on Elections. But, this does not make the problem disappear; it only transfers it to the legal system. What if the public thinks the judges, too, are biased and the election officials are for sale? The point is that, ultimately, the political system cannot turn to the other systems of society for justification; it has to draw legitimacy from its own processes.

In Thailand, the opposition party boycotted the Feb. 2 election called by the government, with opposition-backed protesters openly disrupting the conduct of the polls. As a result, 10,000 polling stations were unable to open, depriving millions of voters of their right to vote. Now, a lawyer identified with the opposition party is asking the constitutional court to invalidate the election for the failure of government to hold a full election. Reason would dictate that such a petition be dismissed outright, given that the failure to conduct the election in a number of constituencies was caused by the opposition itself. But that is an outsider’s view. The likelihood is that the court might grant the petition.

Many observers see these events as a reprise of 2006, when the Thai military took power to end the conflict in the streets between the supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin and the middle-class Bangkok-based activists who opposed his rule. Thaksin, who was elected in 2001, endeared himself to legions of poor Thais by instituting programs that sought to spread the benefits of high economic growth.  But his cockiness and shady business dealings earned him many enemies among Bangkok’s elites. The military deposed him in 2006 and disbanded his party. A new constitution was promulgated in 2007 that limited the power of parliament and granted immense powers to the courts to control political parties. When elections were called later that year, the People Power Party led by politicians identified with Thaksin won enough seats to form a coalition government. But, they, too, were later removed from office by a “judicial coup.” When elections were called again in 2011, Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck, swept into office with her Pheu Thai Party, and became prime minister. And so the cycle continues: It’s now her turn to face the same threat of being thrown out of office.

As in the Philippines, Thai voters are attracted to populist leaders with whom they can identify and who pledge to look after them. Released from the hierarchical ties of traditional society, they are no longer in awe of the old signifiers of the elite’s right to rule—cultural sophistication, high education, rhetorical ability, pedigree, etc. Indeed their choices for leaders may often prove disappointing, but this is no less true for leaders chosen by the elites.

Thailand has to go back to elections sooner or later. But the terms of those elections must be defined in such a way that their outcomes are not predetermined. The voting masses must learn to vote intelligently, and the middle classes must learn to win elections by serving the people. Only then can elections be a source of legitimacy.

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