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As nations in the Middle East revolt against longtime autocrats, many reformers in countries like Tunisia or Egypt are celebrating their first tastes of democratic freedom. In Egypt, high turnout marked a recent referendum, the first truly free vote in modern history, to decide on a set of new constitutional amendments.
Yet as the experience of many developing nations in East Asia shows, these initial, exuberant glimpses of democratic reform can prove a mirage, and toppling a dictator hardly guarantees a smooth path to consolidated democracy. In the 1980s and early 1990s, nations from Indonesia to the Philippines to Mongolia embarked on their own democratic transitions, often after large-scale street demonstrations similar to the Middle East’s “Days of Rage.” Among newly democratizing nations, Thailand, where hundreds of thousands of Thais came out into the streets of Bangkok in 1992 to bring down a military government, seemed perhaps the best prospect for stable democracy. Thailand boasted a large, educated middle class, one of the best-performing economies in the world, and a relatively robust civil society. By the late 1990s, Thailand had held several free elections and passed a reformist constitution that enshrined greater protections for civil liberties and created a wealth of new institutions designed to root out graft and ensure civil rights. In its 1999 report on freedom in the world, monitoring organization Freedom House ranked Thailand a “free” nation.
Today, however, Thailand looks less like a success story and more like an example of how democracy can fail. Since a 2006 military coup, Thailand has reverted to a kind of soft authoritarianism: the military plays an enormous role in determining politics; the Thai middle class has become increasingly antidemocratic; and security forces have used threats, online filtering, arrests, and killings to intimidate opponents of a government sanctioned by the armed forces and Thailand’s monarchy. Freedom House recently ranked Thailand as only “partly free,” and the country has sunk near the bottom of all developing nations in rankings of press freedom. Thailand’s failures provide cautionary tales for reformers in the Arab world.
Where It Went Wrong
After forcing out the military and launching a first wave of democratic reforms, Thailand’s politics took a wrong turn in the past decade, starting the slide that has led to its soft authoritarianism. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, many leading Thai reformers, who had organized the protests in 1992, backed off, a major mistake. They believed, falsely, that Thailand had passed a threshold, allowing them to shut down their NGOs, their media watchdogs, and their transparency monitors. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, many of these idealistic middle-class Thais suddenly found themselves unemployed, making it harder to spend time volunteering at nonprofits or leading nighttime discussion sessions about new political parties.
As Thailand’s reformers eased off the pressure, one of the country’s most powerful businessmen, telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, used his fortune to build a political party and, in 2001, to run for prime minister. Thaksin took advantage of the fact that, contrary to what many reformers believed, the country’s institutions indeed remained weak. He bought up politicians to join his party, and when the courts tried to prosecute him for concealing his assets, he used connections in the judiciary to help win an acquittal, paving the way for him to take office. But Thaksin also offered policy proposals—inexpensive health care, loans to villages to start businesses—that genuinely appealed to Thailand’s poor, who still make up the majority of the country. No Thai politician had tried to court the poor with such comprehensive policies. Indeed, in the exuberance of the early democratic era, Thailand’s middle class seemed to forget that democracy would empower the poor at the ballot box—and that, if reform-minded parties did not appeal to this constituency, a less democratic-minded leader could win them over.
Elected in 2001 with landslide support from the poor, Thaksin soon showed he had little interest in strengthening Thailand’s democracy. Indeed, like Hugo Chávez, Vladimir Putin, Evo Morales, and other leaders who have emerged in many weak democracies today, Thaksin became an elected autocrat. He used his power to threaten Thailand’s free media, eviscerate its independent civil service, and launch a bloody campaign against insurgents in the country’s Muslim-majority south. Like other elected autocrats, Thaksin also rewarded political allies with large government contracts and punished political enemies financially.
By 2005, when Thaksin was reelected, again with massive support from the poor, he dominated the country’s political landscape. And yet Thailand had not become Equatorial Guinea or Libya; the Thai middle classes, who had led the democratic revolution before, could have fought back against Thaksin at the ballot box, through the remaining independent news outlets or in the courts. But instead, like middle classes in many emerging democracies today, they had grown disillusioned with democracy, believing that it had delivered only elected autocracy and that it would empower the poor at their expense.
So, instead of choosing the democratic path, Thailand’s urban middle class launched street protests in 2006 designed to bring down an elected government—by triggering a coup if necessary. The protesters encouraged a return to older forms of Thai “democracy,” in which a small oligarchy essentially controlled politics through unelected positions in parliament, the bureaucracy, and the army. They got what they wanted: the military launched a coup in September 2006, and Thaksin fled into exile. This process has been repeated in recent years in countries from the Philippines to Honduras, where middle classes have used similarly dubious means to push out elected leaders they viewed as excessively populist.
The Thai coup, unfortunately, only triggered a total meltdown. Thaksin might have damaged the country’s weak democracy, but the military ruined it. It shredded the reformist constitution and set the stage for today’s Thai government, which unleashed massive force against demonstrators who gathered in the streets of Bangkok in spring 2010. In that bloodshed, at least eighty people were killed, and parts of Bangkok’s central business district were torched, leaving the prosperous city looking more like Baghdad or Kabul.
The Lessons of Thailand’s Meltdown
Later this year, Thailand will go to the polls in a national election touted by the government as a major step toward reconciliation between classes and factions following the bloodshed last year. But the election is unlikely to be free and fair. The military allegedly has been working behind the scenes to build support for the ruling party, and if the opposition, still aligned with the exiled Thaksin, does happen to win, it is quite possible the armed forces will launch a coup. This would only further deepen class divides in Thailand and possibly spark all-out civil conflict.
Thailand’s fate is not destined to be repeated in the Middle East, but as in Thailand, the democratic revolts in the Arab-Muslim world could easily get sidetracked. Fighting for change is not easy, and in countries like Egypt, where unemployment is high, would-be reformers could want to return to their businesses and their families rather than investing years or decades promoting good governance.
But continued investment in reform is critical. In Middle Eastern nations with little history of democratic politics, and where for decades political losers fled the country or wound up in jail, it is not hard to imagine that the first generation of elected leaders will, like Thaksin, use their electoral victories to crush all opposition. And if a populist leader like Thaksin wins initial elections in countries like Egypt or Tunisia, or possibly Morocco or Jordan, where large underclasses or repressed ethnic or religious groups are gaining freedom, it could easily trigger a backlash from middle classes and elites, who would turn to their traditional protectors—the army, the security forces, the palace—to squash real democratic rule. In Egypt, liberal economic reforms instituted since the early 2000s have opened up the economy, but they also have led to rising inequality: new mansions have sprung up in posh areas of Cairo, yet nearly one-third of Upper Egypt still lives in poverty.
To avoid Thailand’s fate, Middle Eastern reformers should take several critical steps. For one, they must realize that, even after they topple a dictator, they cannot abandon the hard work of reforms; it is in these early days of democratization that the need for independent government watchdogs, new press outlets, or aggressive unions is most vital. In addition, they must resist the tendency to personalize reform—to focus all their hopes for change on one leader, as some Thais put all their hope in Thaksin, or as many Indonesians have placed their hopes in current president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. When the public puts so much hope in one potential reformer, his or her failings become magnified, often leading to disillusionment with democracy itself. Finally, new leaders in the Middle East will have to enact policies that help reduce economic inequality, which has been fatal to democracy in Thailand—and could be as well in Egypt or Tunisia—with populist-elected autocrats winning office on the poor’s new political empowerment but then using their power to undermine democracy’s very institutions.