I like this
“The poor have objected to being
governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”–G.K.
When I posted it on
Twitter this week a lot of other people liked and retweeted it. The reason G.K.
Chesterton’s quote resonances today in Thailand and many other countries is it
sums up the class dissatisfaction that both the rich and the poor feel about
Let’s face it. Government
is a necessary evil we need in order to find a way to live with each other.
Anarchy as an alternative creates a dystopia more bleak, dark and dangerous than
just about any political system (unless you have the misfortune to live in North
Korea or Somalia). Most other systems are in various degrees of crises,
revolution, or civil war. Government is a tough racket to keep from running into
In Thailand, on the
political front, no one is happy with the current impasse. Two polarized sides
blame each other for every failure, problem, or mistake over the last dozen
years. Now it has all come to a head. The last couple of weeks saw an increase
in strong emotions on both sides and once that happened, finding a way to lower
the temperature inside the political cauldron has proved elusive.
Over the last few weeks,
the traditional elites and their middle-class allies in Bangkok have taken to
the streets. Their initial action was in the best traditions of a democracy
where people march and give voice their objections to Government policy and
decisions. The right to demonstrate is healthy for a democracy. Like freedom of
expression, protest demonstrations are an essential part of the democratic
The initial goal of the
most recent round of demonstrations was to pressure the government to drop an
amnesty bill that would have cleared criminal and civil actions against former
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and that goal was achieved. Success didn’t
stop the protest but embodied it to moved on to pressuring the government to
accept the validity of a questionable decision by the Constitutional Court that
effectively bars the government from amending the Constitution.
constitutional amendment passed by the Government would have returned the
partially elected Senate into a wholly elected body it was before the 2006 coup.
And finally the protest demanded that the prime minister and cabinet resign and
a caretaker government be appointed. A house dissolution and election were
insufficient. The protesters demanded a “People’s Council” to take over
governing. But who elects the People’s Council?
There lies the rub.
Elections. Thailand’s urban Bangkok elites, who mainly support the Democrat
Party, have failed to out vote their upcountry cousins in the North and
Northeast who consistently walk away with an electoral majority for the Pheu
Thai Party headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted Thaksin’s
sister. The last time the Democrat party formed a government they had the
assistance of the military to lever them into the driver’s seat. Following the
2006 coup that tore up the 1997 constitution and removed the government, the
Democrats replaced the government, which had won an election mandate to
leadership under ex-Democrat MP and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban,
having tasted success and had the Government on the run, saw an opening to
implement his plans to radically alter the existing constitutional and political
system and install a wholly new system. It is no longer an anti-government
demonstration; it was a strange bird, part-coup, part-revolution, part-rock
concert with portable toilets, tents and bamboo matt and a well-stocked mobile
kitchen. It turns out the real complaint is not just the Government but the
political system enshrined (irony alert) in the 2007 Constitution written under
the careful eye of the military. How can we put it—the military inspired
constitution proved too much on the side of a liberal democracy for the Bangkok
A couple of metaphors
might be helpful to understand evolving political handbook the opposition wishes
to replace the one in the Constitution. Although I am aware that arguing by
metaphor presents dangers and distortions and this attempt will be no
exception—especially when the metaphors are “corporations” and
Despite the polarized
political divide in Thailand, both sides are pro-business, pro-capitalists. No
one is arguing the free-market economic system in Thailand (where there is
full-employment) needs to be destroyed and replaced with a different economic
model. It’s not that kind of revolution.
The political issue arises
because of a fundamental disagreement of who should be in charge of economic and
political systems. Like a large company, Thailand’s resources are spread over a
large number of people. Call them voters, or stakeholders, or call them
shareholders. In a company, the dividend paid out depends on the earnings and
the Board of Directors determine the amount of the distribution to the
shareholders. Also the members of a company board of directors stand for
election and the shareholders vote. In a parliamentary system, the government
acts as the board of directors. Citizens, like shareholders, they choose with
their votes among those competing for positions of authority and
Political systems also
distribute dividends and that is why the stakes are so high and elections are so
important. This is where the food metaphor kicks in. To add another layer to the
metaphorical cake, think of a buffet. Everyone demands a big share of the buffet
and for someone else to pick up the check at the end of the meal. The buffet
isn’t unlimited. As the number of chairs around the table expands, it is viewed
by the original diners, that these new people are threatening to eat them out of
Bangkok condo and holiday house.
The problem for the
opposition in Thailand is the new diners feel they’ve had enough of the
traditional Bangkok elites who offered them crumbs and leftovers. They had
started demanding their fair share of the main course and the pie,
cigars, and brandy. Competition comes into play. Like in the corporate world, in
the political world those who have a monopoly see no reason to give it up. What
we witness in this drama is a page out of the human nature newsreel as people
fight over a place at the table, one of the chairs, the food, and the bill.
Greed rears its head, talons and fangs appear, and fat cats and skinny cats
circle each other around the table. Voters choose candidates for all kinds of
reasons, but an important one is they will fairly distribute that buffet to
them. Another way of looking at populism is the buffet line becomes much
To return to the idea of
political system having similarly with a corporate governance system, it is
important to understand the purpose of a stock market, which is to raise
capital. Capital formation depends on convincing shareholders to invest in
shares. The democratic political process operates on a similar idea. Politicians
need to raise political capital and are willing to pay hard cash to do so
meaning that political capital is more than an ego trip. A company raises
capital on the financial markets by persuading investors to part with their
money. Politicians raise political capital by promising voters benefits so they
will vote for them. And in Thailand that can often involve a cash transaction
(and no side has clean hands in vote buying). A political system also needs to
raise political capital. We judge the legitimacy of a political system by the
ways it sets the rules as to how politicians are required to raise political
capital sufficient to send them to parliament. Once elected many of those
promises may be compromised or forgotten but sooner or later a politician knows
that he/she is answerable for an accounting at the next election.
Protest leader Suthep
Thaugsuban, has a plan to restructure the political process, which would result
in eliminating a citizen’s right to vote. Viewed from a company standpoint, the
effect is to replace the ordinary shareholder with the preferred shareholders.
Other than calling them the ‘good people’ these preferred shareholders are
entrusted with the right to vote, and they will vote for the board of directors
of ‘good people’. In other words, the minority calls the shots and there is no
mechanism for voting the minority out of office. Back to food: The buffet line
is closed. No more chairs at the table. The newcomers are shown the
This suspicious looks like
a backdoor, hostile privatization of a public company. It is more like an
old-fashioned nationalization of shares without compensation for the loss to the
ordinary shareholder. In the capitalist world, throwing shareholders out of the
buffet room is viewed with suspicion. Drones were built for that eventuality. No
ordinary shareholder is going to except the excuse that their interests are
better served by the preferred shareholders.
In the case of Thailand,
should a trial balloon to suspend election become a reality and should the
appointment of a self-governing People’s Council come about, the effect would be
to annul general elections. And perhaps be the spark for considerable violence.
Inside this, the newly privatized political process, the preferred shareholders,
call all of the shots, including the suspension of ‘populist’ policies tricks
that anti-democracy proponents believe are the heart of the problem.
As the weekend approaches
in Bangkok, there are many unanswered political questions being raised in
Thailand. Voters, like ordinary shareholders, like the buffet spread that
Thaksin Shinawatra’s political parties have delivered to them. Taking away their
plates, spoons and forks and chase them from the table won’t be an easy task.
What price will the preferred shareholders, the Bangkok urban elite, pure
capitalists in their hearts, be prepared to pay to take back the buffet room for
themselves? The answer is unclear.
What is more clear is that
many anti-democratic protestors unite around the idea that political capital is
only raised from the ‘good people’ and ordinary shareholders aren’t clever or
educated enough to be considered ‘good’ and are excluded from direct involvement
in the political process. That idea underestimates them. Once you’ve been to a
good buffet no one can take away that memory. To be tossed out the door not
because you’ve lost an election but because an elite thinks you’re stupid is the
kind of argument that won’t win a lot of friends.
The opposition argument
isn’t about winning friends; it’s about defeating an enemy. And at the end of
the day, a basic complaint by conservative forces is that liberal democracy
helps ‘bad’ people obtain political power over the ‘good’ ones. The assumption
is that ordinary people should be happy that the good people, the preferred
people, are committed to running the system according to old values, traditions,
and customs as to running the ‘company’ and the ‘buffet’.
But you other lot—you go
back to your bowl of sticky rice, fish sauce and som tum. And this is
your karma, actually it is your own fault we are protesting. You, the
ordinary shareholders, with your upcountry snout in our Bangkok buffet are
enablers of an evil, corrupt family that abuses political power. Besides you are
trying to sit in my chair and eat off my plate!
It is doubtful that
members of this group of anti-democratic elites would ever go to the capital
market to raise funds for one of their companies with such a policy statement
set out in their prospectus. But when it comes to the political buffet, in
Thailand people are debating the idea in the streets as to when the good people
will once again have the authority to decide menu and decide who gets to stay at
the head table and second helpings.