Thailand is not one democracy, but two. In the 1990s the Thai political scientist Anek Laothamatas argued that the middle classes of Bangkok, educated and sophisticated, opposed corruption and embraced democratic values, while the uneducated masses in the rest of the country were susceptible to manipulation by unscrupulous politicians. This narrative is now being repeated by the middle-class Bangkokians who have recently taken to the streets en masse and occupied government buildings, forcing Yingluck Shinawatra, the democratically elected prime minister, to call for early elections in February.
In fact, the protesters themselves are proving Mr. Anek wrong. Now it’s the urban middle classes who are being manipulated by wayward politicians — like Suthep Thaugsuban, a former deputy prime minister who resigned from Parliament last month to lead the demonstrations — and who oppose holding fresh elections. And it’s the voters from the countryside who are backing electoral democracy.
Most administrations have traditionally comprised unstable coalitions of warring factions, which means the traditional elites in the military, the royal palace and the judiciary called most of the shots because they could bring down prime ministers at will. Monarchism is to Thailand what Kemalism is to Turkey: a founding principle that the military can always invoke to justify seizing power on grounds of national security.
At least that was the case until 2001, when Thaksin Shinawatra, Ms. Yingluck’s older brother, won his first election, paving the way for the victory of pro-Thaksin parties in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2011. An upstart Chiang Mai police officer turned telecommunications magnate and then political hustler, Mr. Thaksin is a controversial and polarizing figure. He was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Now in exile abroad, he faces jail time should he return home. Yet he has managed to consolidate power in the hands of a dominant ruling party, which has survived two court-mandated dissolutions and other judicial challenges.
Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrat Party, last won an election in 1992; its conservative, pro-bureaucracy bases in Bangkok and the south are not big enough for it to secure a national majority. And this very sore loser is now playing a central role in trying to oust an elected government. Its members have resigned from Parliament and joined the demonstrators who are calling for an end to the broader “Thaksin regime” and claiming that pro-Thaksin politicians have been buying rural voters.
But the protesters are failing to grasp that the Shinawatra family is simply the astute beneficiary of seismic changes in Thailand’s political economy. Although money undoubtedly plays a role in all Thai elections, Mr. Thaksin, Ms. Yingluck and their parties have built up a huge and genuine following, especially in the very populous northern and northeastern parts of the country.
Full-time farmers hardly exist in these regions any more. They have become urbanized villagers: provincials only on paper, who have migrated to work in greater Bangkok but vote in their home provinces. General elections in Thailand are now determined by some 16 million or more urbanized villagers, who make up around a third of the total electorate.
Urbanized villagers have incomes not much lower than their urban middle-class counterparts, but they are often in debt, have insecure employment and have to work more than one job. Unlike the villagers of old, they are not interested in subsistence agriculture; they want to enjoy the benefits of consumer society and send their children to university. Like most Democrat Party supporters, they dream of socio-economic advancement, yet for more than a decade, the pro-Thaksin parties have locked in their support with populist policies such as subsidized healthcare programs and village-development funds to promote small businesses.
The current antigovernment protests in Bangkok are the last gasp of Thai dynastic paternalism. They reflect the determination of the old elite and its middle-class allies to check the rising power of the formerly rural electorate by bringing down the Yingluck administration. They are calling for the creation of a “people’s assembly,” an unelected temporary governing body representing different occupational groups that would oversee a process of political reform — in effect, a dictatorship of the capital over the rest of the country.
The protests are taking place in a climate of growing national anxiety. This nervousness has several sources: fears about royal succession, as the long reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej approaches its twilight; fears about secession, as one of the world’s worst insurgencies by Malay-Muslim separatists continues to rage in the southern provinces; fears about alienation, as pro-Thaksin groups have established thousands of “red-shirt villages” in the increasingly psychologically isolated north and northeast — and above all, fears among Bangkok’s middle classes about being outvoted by low-class urbanized villagers.
It was all so unnecessary. Just a few weeks ago, Ms. Yingluck was governing Thailand with the tacit support of the military and the monarchy. Her government had numerous failings, but for two and a half years there had been no serious political protests and the country’s deep divisions had been largely papered over.
A new pact among the pro-Thaksin and pro-royalist elites is urgently needed. This time, however, it should be broadened to engage the wider public. More urbanized villagers should be allowed to register to vote in and around Bangkok. Power should be decentralized in favor of the provinces, with some form of autonomy granted to the troubled south.
Instead of occupying ministry buildings in Bangkok, the Democrats would do well to make serious attempts to woo provincial voters. Urbanized villagers cannot be wished away by the Bangkok elites; they rightly expect to share the benefits of Thailand’s remarkable economic success. When they no longer are treated as underdogs, their pragmatic ties with pro-Thaksin parties will wither — and Thailand will stop being two democracies and become one unified nation.
Duncan McCargo is professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds and a senior research affiliate at Columbia University.