Democracy is harder than western flip-flops make out

By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 22/09/06):

There's something odd about the foreign reaction to Thailand's coup this week. Western governments have tut-tutted in a mild sort of way before hurrying to do business with the new military junta. Many foreign commentators have gone further, even welcoming the coup as they portray the ousted prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, as a vulgar authoritarian who deserved to lose power. If other analysts are still hesitating over what line to take, it seems to be because of doubts over the Thai king's view.

If he approves the coup, which his call for calm yesterday indicates he does, then it's OK. If he says he doesn't, then the junta must pack up and go. It all seems rather rum. You instinctively applaud a bunch of generals, then nervously wait to see whether an unelected monarch says you're right. Where is that talk about supporting "new democracies" and "countries in transition"? Gone down the Bangkok river.

We should not be surprised, I suppose. Eight months ago the Palestinians held an election and chose the wrong people, so their efforts at democracy were also overruled. Foreign governments rushed to tell the new Palestinian government it would not be recognised until it tore up its election manifesto and did a U-turn.

Six years earlier there had been another coup in an Asian country. A general in Pakistan called Pervez Musharraf closed parliament and banned political parties. His actions were more extreme than those of the Thai junta, and the initial reaction abroad was tougher. The British Commonwealth suspended the country from the club and other governments imposed a few soft sanctions. They lapsed quickly enough, and under Musharraf, now described as president, Pakistan has become an honoured member of the west's international war on terror.

One lesson from these western flip-flops is that in the real world democracy is more complex than the Washington crusaders make out. The other is that democratic institutions cannot easily handle the strains produced by the external forces of globalisation as well as rapid internal change. Asia's new democracies have within a generation evolved from being largely rural to predominantly urban. The countryside is buffeted by falling commodity prices and competition from imported food as well as by the magnet of city life. Village girls are sucked into sweatshop garment factories and assembly lines, or the squalor of the sex trade. While the new middle classes who have made a success of the changed economy appear to approve of this week's coup, Thailand's rural and small-town voters are said to be maintaining support for the ousted prime minister.

Similar strains have torn at the social and political fabric of the Philippines, where the line between democratic elections and military rule has long been fragile. Although the Philippines has avoided a military coup for more than two decades, this was partly through the device of having a top general, Fidel Ramos, elected as president and serving for six years in the 1990s. Today rumours of impending military coups surround the wobbly presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and they have done so almost from the moment she took office.

Older struggles over feudal systems of land tenure, which gave rise to a communist insurgency, still potter on, but the main political battleground in the Philippines is competition for the spoils of the new globalised economy - who will own or control the lucrative telecoms industry, the private television stations and the banking sector. Cronyism in the granting of licences to run them makes politics a dirty business.

In Thailand Thaksin Shinawatra represented the new breed of businessman-turned-politician who became rich in telecommunications (though he started in the security services as a police officer). He formed his own political party and used TV to present himself as a "pro-poor" candidate fighting the ruling elites. His first victory, in 2001, was a triumph of the new "anti-politics" politics. In the Philippines his analogue was Joseph Estrada, a former film star, who also projected himself as an anti-elite candidate and won the presidency in 1998. He survived little more than two and a half years in office, largely because of persistent corruption allegations. But the decisive factor in pushing him out - just as in Thailand this week - was the army. Huge crowds occupied Manila's streets to demand his impeachment. They only got their way when the army switched sides, telling Estrada to go and allowing Gloria Arroyo, his vice-president, to take over.

Another reason for the volatility of politics in the "new democracies" is the lack of real choice, a phenomenon not unknown in so-called mature democracies as well in the "transition countries" of eastern Europe, where Hungarians took to the streets this week over their prime minister's lies. Whatever government comes in and however bold its promises are, the scope for radical economic change is limited.

South Korea has a long history of generals-turned-politicians, and when Roh Moo-hyun broke the mould three years ago, there was optimism among Asia's progressives. A distinguished human-rights lawyer, Roh appeared to offer a new start after calling for clean corporate governance and independence from Washington. South Korean politics has been dominated by the role of the United States in Asia, an issue that is of less salience in Thailand, and no longer of great importance in the Philippines since the closure of the US bases there. But Roh's economic promises were thwarted, and he even sent South Korean troops to Iraq, causing fresh disappointment.

To draw clear conclusions from the chaotic recent history of Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea and Pakistan is not easy. Each country's politics are specific. But one guideline should surely be clear: removing the army from its role as the arbiter of politics and transforming it into a normal civic institution that serves rather than runs the state is a crucial principle for any new or old democracy.

What happened in Thailand this week was therefore a step backwards. The sad thing is that the emerging middle class - which western liberals so often claim is the indispensable guarantor of progress in the transition from authoritarianism - applauded it.