Only a decade ago, Thailand was one of Asia's strongest democracies. Today, that democracy has fallen off a cliff, a worrying trend, which despite the optimism of the Arab spring, is increasingly being seen elsewhere in the developing world too. Now, with the election of the Puea Thai party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra, sister of exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand risks losing a last chance to put its wobbly democracy back on track.
Thailand's democratic fall is relatively recent. Reformers took control after the failed military interventions of the early 1990s, passing a progressive constitution in 1997, and holding free elections.
“Thailand's freedom, openness, strength, and relative prosperity make it a role model,” US assistant secretary of state James Kelly declared in 2002. Growing divides between the middle and upper classes and the poor, however, gradually polarised Thai society, leading to turmoil, and a bloody crackdown in Bangkok last year that killed at least 90 people.
Mr Thaksin was at the heart of these tensions. First elected in 2001, he proved a revelation. For the first time here was a Thai politician who appealed to the poor – who, as in many developing countries, comprise the majority of the electorate. Politically engaged for the first time, they turned out in droves. Yet as he won mandate after mandate, Mr Thaksin – like other elected autocrats such as Vladimir Putin or Hugo Chavez – began to undermine the rule of law, enacting policies that favoured his family businesses, alarming Thailand's middle class and elites, the military and royal family.
The result saw a familiar pattern from angry middle class revolts from Venezuela to the Philippines, in which these groups disdained elections and fought back in the streets, toppling Mr Thaksin in a coup in 2006. Yet, now believing that their votes mattered, Thailand's poor were also unwilling to give way, leading to frequent battles with security forces. Now, in this election, they, and Ms Yingluck, have handed the establishment one of their worst defeats. Now Thailand's first female prime minister has a chance to put its democracy back together. Despite her surname, she may win acceptance on all sides, simply by not being her brother. Unlike him, she seems to understand the need for compromise, including a vow not to prosecute army officers for last year's bloodshed. But if she fails to take this chance, her country could again descend into civil conflict – foreshadowing similar implosions in other failing democracies worldwide.
Here the early signs have been mixed. In the days after the election, all sides called for calm. Rather than govern alone, Ms Yingluck chose to bring others into a coalition. Her primary mission, she told reporters, was “to lead the country to unity and reconciliation.” In response, Thailand's army chief, an arch-conservative traditionalist, has said the military will not interfere with her government.
But this detente is unlikely to last. Though Ms Yingluck has avoided discussing the topic, many in her party, who worship her brother, want him back. Puea Thai promised an amnesty during the campaign, and the Thai press reported on Tuesday that these plans were now being developed. Though he claims to want to retire, Mr Thaksin, an incorrigible politician never happier than in front of a crowd, has no intention of stepping back from the limelight. Even so, as by far the most divisive figure in the country, his return could spark major street protests by the middle class and elites, just the kind of unrest that could provide a rationale for military intervention to restore order.
In the longer run, both Thailand's urban middle classes and its poor must accept the need for painful change. The poor, and their allies in Ms Yingluck's party, must accept that they have to protect private property rights and the rule of law and also that they must not let Mr Thaksin back into Thailand, no matter how much they love him.
The middle classes, including their allies in the army and the royal palace, need to accept that if Thailand is to be a democracy, the will of the voters must triumph. Hardest of all, Mr Thaksin must accept that he really does have to retire, if he wants his country to flourish and his positive legacies – including political empowerment and poverty reduction – to stand the test of time. But if he and his sister insist on a comeback, he may yet have to take responsibility for the final fiery death of a once-promising democratic nation.
Joshua Kurlantzick is Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2011.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.