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. 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. However, the opposition Democratic Party — which returned 159 MPs, mainly from Bangkok and southern Thailand — has 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 Thai 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 (It would have also superseded the murder charges brought against the Democratic Party’s leader, former Thai prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.) However, Yingluck’s subsequent attempt to backtrack on the amnesty measure failed to mollify the opposition.
In fact, the street protests intensified, fueled by a new grievance. The Yingluck government had refused to accept the Constitutional Court’s ruling against a bill to change the Senate from a half-appointed to a fully elected chamber. The government asserted that the court did not have jurisdiction over constitutional amendments. The People’s Committee viewed this rejection as an attempt to pressure the king into countersigning the law — and thus as a threat to royal prerogatives and the king’s exalted role.
The People’s Committee’s position deserves explanation, if not agreement. Since the turn of the century, Thaksin’s party machines, powered by his populist policies, have overcome constant challenges — from both the military and the Constitutional Court — to beat the conservative-royalist Democrats in every election.
Opposition forces, fed up as much with Thaksin’s corrupt practices as with his longstanding popularity, have recently begun seizing government ministries and calling for a royally appointed government. If they succeed, PTP supporters will likely descend on Bangkok, much as they did in 2009 and 2010, after a “judicial coup” dissolved Thaksin’s People’s Power Party, the PTP’s predecessor, and the Democrats formed a coalition government. However, this time, the protesters will be even angrier, and the stakes will be much higher, because the monarchy’s role in Thailand’s electoral democracy will be called into question.
The mere plausibility of such an outcome underscores Thailand’s deep political polarization. The PTP’s supporters are happy with a system that grants them a political voice — indeed, predictable electoral majorities — and that safeguards their rights. However, the minority — which comprises up to two-fifths of the electorate — is at a loss. Its legitimacy and influence depend not on winning electoral majorities, but on its strong alliances with the military, bureaucracy and judiciary in defense of a traditional hierarchy that places the king at its apex.