Thailand’s Democratic Disorder

Democracy monument in Bangkok, Thailand

Democracy monument in Bangkok, Thailand. Photo: David Villa/flickr.

BANGKOK – From Thailand to Turkey to Ukraine, the relationship between ruling majorities and electoral minorities has become combustible – and is threatening to erode the legitimacy of democracy itself. The unfolding crisis in Bangkok – where a political minority has taken to the streets to bring down Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s democratically elected government – is a case in point.

Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party (PTP) won an outright majority in Thailand’s 2011 general election, gaining 265 MPs in the 500-member lower house. But the opposition Democratic Party – which returned 159 MPs, mainly from Bangkok and southern Thailand – has lately been staging protests in the capital. The so-called “People’s Committee for Democratic Reform” – led by former Democratic Party MP Suthep Thaugsuban and supported by the Bangkok-based establishment – has effectively attempted to stage a coup.

The protests began when the government tried to enact amnesty legislation that would have overturned the conviction of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – Yingluck’s brother and the PTP’s founder, who was overthrown by the military in 2006 – on charges of corruption and abuse of power. (It also would have superseded the murder charges brought against the Democratic Party’s leader, former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.) But Yingluck’s subsequent attempt to backtrack on the amnesty measure failed to mollify the opposition. » More

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Disgruntled Democracies

Yo Soy 132, courtesy of Micheal Fleshman /flickr

MEXICO CITY – In 2011 and 2012, tens of thousands of students demonstrated in Santiago, Chile, demanding greater access to higher education. Earlier this year, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians marched in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte, calling for improved public-health services, better schools, and cheaper, more efficient public transport. And Colombians and Peruvians from all walks of life (especially peasants, farm owners, and mineworkers), as well as Mexican school teachers, now occupy the centers of Bogotá, Lima, and Mexico City, disrupting inhabitants’ daily lives and creating serious problems for the authorities.

These countries, once models of economic hope and democratic promise in Latin America, have become examples of democracies without legitimacy or credibility. Although they have made significant social progress in recent years, they have become centers of popular unrest. And their presidents, despite their undeniable competence, are watching their approval ratings plummet. » More

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Muzzling the Dogs of War

Secretaries Kerry and Hagel Meet With Russian Ministers Lavrov and Shoygu. Photo: U.S. Department of State/Wikimedia Commons.

WASHINGTON, DC – Sitting in Paris as the United States’s first ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson reflected on how the new US government could avoid the errors of European “despots” who kept their people subjugated through war and debt. Writing to James Madison, he observed that the US Constitution had at least checked “the Dog of war,” by transferring “the power of letting him loose from the Executive to the Legislative body, from those who are to spend to those who are to pay.”

At the same time, however, the Constitution designates the executive as the “Commander in Chief,” a power that American presidents have invoked to use military force without Congressional authorization on more than 200 occasions. President Barack Obama relied on that power when he told both Congress and the American people that he had the authority to order limited strikes on Syria without going to Congress.

By simultaneously claiming that authority and seeking Congressional authorization to use it, Obama enters a small class of leaders who actively seek to constrain their own power. That is because he sees his historical legacy as that of a president who ended wars and made them harder to start, instead reinvesting America’s resources in its own people. He opposed the Iraq war in 2003 and promised in 2008 that he would end the unlimited “war on terror,” which had become a potential blank check for US presidents to use force anywhere in the world.

But, beyond the system of political “checks and balances” created by the US Constitution, does it make sense for leaders to take decisions regarding the use of force to the people? It certainly makes the leaders’ lives harder. British Prime Minister David Cameron came up short when he turned to Parliament to authorize British participation in US strikes against Syria. French President François Hollande faced intense criticism from right-wing parties in the National Assembly for his agreement to participate in the strikes. And Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who volunteered to participate in a military coalition, is facing strong domestic opposition to his Syria policy.

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Guinea Poised to Complete Transition to Civilian Rule

Cellou Dalein Diallo, Former Prime Minister of Guinea and President of Union of Democratic Forces of Guinea (UFDG). Image by Friends of Europe / Flickr.

Guinea’s parliamentary election, to be held later this month, will establish a legislative assembly after almost five years without one, and formally complete a transition to civilian rule. But the long-overdue poll is fraught with political and ethnic tensions that analysts say hinder reforms and progress.

The legislative election was supposed to be held six months after the 2010 presidential poll that brought President Alpha Condé to power, but after protracted disputes between the government and the opposition, Guineans will instead vote on 24 September of this year.

Guineans remain sharply divided over Condé’s win in the run-off against opposition leader Cellou Dalein Diallo, and supporters on each side see the legislative poll as an occasion to demonstrate their party’s political weight. Many political leaders who backed Condé in 2010 are now supporting the opposition in the parliamentary election. » More

Democracy Promotion’s Mixed Track Record

A man in Jakarta shows his inked finger at a polling station to proof he voted in the 2009 presidential election, the second since the fall of the Suharto regime. Photo: Isabel Esterman.

Once widely considered a desirable endpoint for all nations, democracy’s seeming benefits are now openly questioned by many. The poor results of democratization in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with the rise of economically successful non-democracies such as China, have caused democracy promotion to lose some of its luster. So, given these recent trends, what are democracy’s prospects for the future?

This question was the primary focus of a recent panel discussion hosted by the Forum Aussenpolitik (foraus) and NCCR Democracy at the University of Zurich. Entitled “Democracy Promotion: Lessons from Different Regions of the World,” the discussion featured three experts who analyzed the ways and means of democracy promotion; its feasibility; how and whether it should be encouraged, and its successes and failures.

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