Just a quarter of a century ago, the Berlin Wall was a heap of ruins : expectations for the future were high. Understandably. The USSR and its well entrenched web of communist dictatorships would soon become a bad memory.
Back in 1989 History, appeared to move swiftly towards more liberty with elected governments, individual rights, and some form of liberal democracy and a market economy.
The American scholar Francis Fukuyama prophesied in a now famous essay “The end of history”, i.e the inevitable march of the world towards a single model : the liberal democracy and market economy.
Finally history was sending Lenin back to school : democracy, not communism, was meant to be the winning paradigm by technical knockout against Marxism.
The next century would be the one of a “global liberal revolution”, both irresistible and irreversible, that is to say, the advent of universal democracy devoted to protecting individual freedom and human rights.
Francis Fukuyama is back now and a bit disillusioned, even if the democratic model is a clear winner of the last 25 years: in 1974, 30 states were democratic, less than 30%, against 120 in 2013 nearly 60%.
Three steps forward, two steps back
Unfortunately Thailand is no longer part of the 60% democratic majority. It has recently flipped, again, toward the dark side of authoritarian regimes. It seems that in Thailand the road to the “end of history” is a little bit more complicated and tortuous than elsewhere.
The march towards democracy in Thailand feels more like a Cuban Conga: three steps forward and two steps back.
But the idiosyncrasies of Thailand do not alone explain the recent problems faced by the kingdom : democracy has its own caveats.
“The problem in today’s world isn’t just that authoritarian powers are on the move but that many existing democracies aren’t doing well either.”
writes Francis Fukuyama in the Wall Street Journal.
Take Thailand, whose frayed political fabric gave way last month to a military coup, or Bangladesh, whose system remains in thrall to two corrupt political machines. Many countries that seemed to have made successful democratic transitions—Turkey, Sri Lanka, Nicaragua—have been backsliding into authoritarian practices. Others, including recent additions to the European Union like Romania and Bulgaria, are still plagued by corruption.
Just like in Thailand, democracy can lead to a deceptive experience plagued with corruption and populism. Voting and election are now often used as a varnish to embellish reprehensible and doubtful agenda. Why bother to hold referendums on “self-determination” in eastern Ukraine, if not to show a democratic stance in front of the international community ?
What about Mexico with its 22,000 “disappeared” since 2006? A democracy, no doubt about it, but riddled with corruption, where a large part of the police provides gunning support to local mafias. Yes you could easily disappear in Mexico, probably much more easily than being stabbed to death on a beach in Thailand.
Would you choose Mexico to retire against Thailand, even if you are a hard core red shirt supporter, bashing Prayuth on your Facebook account on a daily basis ? I doubt it. Nevertheless Mexico is on the right side of the track : a true democracy compared to Thailand.
The monopoly of legitimate violence
Thailand is not there yet, but before the coup, it was perhaps too easy to kill opponents with grenade launcher in broad daylight at all time, thanks to the police always busy looking elsewhere.
Under the last government Shinawatra, Thailand was a failed state: economically crushed by the weight of the pharaonic losses generated by wild speculation on rice prices. Thailand was also no longer a functioning state by the definition given by Max Weber (“the monopoly of legitimate violence”), as the Thai government who had completely lost control of the situation.
Thailand is not an isolated case: Russia is tending more and more towards an elected authoritarian regime threatening to take by force the territories lost during the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
As for the “Arab Spring”, he rarely delivered a peaceful path to democracy and freedom: a new form of dictatorship, sometimes duly elected and run by radical Islamism, succeeded to the old one, sometimes even worse than the previous one.
Certainly the percentage of democratic states has doubled since 1989, from 30 to 60%, but democracy is not limited to the election of a government.
The biggest single problem in societies aspiring to be democratic has been their failure to provide the substance of what people want from government: personal security, shared economic growth and the basic public services (especially education, health care and infrastructure) that are needed to achieve individual opportunity.
Democracy or kleptocracy ?
When democracy moves toward a form of kleptocracy to serve the vested interests of a family, or a single person, democracy is no longer credible.
When the best interests Thailand are thrown into a bottomless pit of demagoguery by a handful of leaders blinded by ambition, and pursuing their own personal ulterior motives, thanks to a blank check promptly granted by democratic anointing, democracy is no longer credible .
This does not affect the historical prevalence of the democratic model in the long term, and that includes Thailand horizon.
But not at all costs.
Prayuth’s dictatorship is not a move against democracy, it is a reaction against the worst sides of democracy.