Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Wall Street Journal: Managed Democracy Doesn't Work

Wall Street Journal:

Some Asian leaders like to argue that "managed democracy," where elections are held but old elites and the military really call the shots, is best. To see just how well that works, look no further than Thailand, where the petrol bombs of mob rule have been added to the mix.

Yesterday, military police opened fire on antigovernment protesters in Bangkok. At least 79 people were wounded and one killed in that and other incidents. The same protest group charged into a regional summit in Pattaya on Saturday, forcing Asian dignitaries -- including Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso -- to escape via helicopter. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declared a state of emergency Sunday. Bangkok has come to a virtual standstill.

The chaos could not come at a worse time for one of Asia's most important economies, and a country which has been taking fitful but determined steps toward democracy for many years now. Mob action is unlikely to advance that cause, but some of the protest, at least, is rooted in genuine frustration. Thais re-elected Thaksin Shinawatra to a second term as their leader in 2005, only to see him overthrown by a military coup the following year. The military-backed government held genuine elections in 2007 and again, Thai voters elected Mr. Thaksin's allies. Last year, that government was overthrown after violent street protests, airport occupations and controversial legal rulings that hobbled Mr. Thaksin's party and political allies.

Despite his best efforts to avoid conflict, Mr. Abhisit is caught in a political corner. A military crackdown endangers his own government's sagging popularity. But he can't easily command popular authority because he himself didn't come to power in an entirely democratic fashion, having been elected by Parliament on the back of protests that brought the country to a standstill. Yesterday he said on national television that he ordered the state of emergency "not to create fear or put pressure or to harm any group of people. It's a step by step process to restore order and stop violence."

The only lasting way to restore order is to remove the chronic threat of military intervention in government and strengthen the country's democratic institutions. This has been a struggle in Thailand, which also had military coups in 1971, 1977 and 1991. Mr. Thaksin's call for "revolution" and his talk of returning to Thailand isn't helping matters.

WSJ got the dates wrong.

Other countries that have tried "managed democracy" without a benevolent backstop include the Philippines and Pakistan. Like Thailand, those countries have failed to untangle public interests from the private business sector. It's thus proved hard to push for real institutional change and attract wealth creating investment. It's a destructive cycle.

There are some similarities between Thailand and Pakistan and the Philippines. Wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few families, the aristocracy thinks they are born to rule and hangs onto the vestiges of feudalism to protect their power and privileges, and the military involves itself in matters that don't concern them while failing to properly do their jobs, such as protecting the country from foreign enemies.

I shouldn't bring the US into this, but I will. Another similarity that these countries have is that the military and elites have all been at one time been partners with the security apparatuses of the United States. I only bring this up because the Wall Street Journal is one of the voices of interventionism, which I am against, mainly because when the US involves itself in the affairs of another country the long-term blow back from that intervention creates more problems than it resolves.

The Wall Street Journal should keep that in mind next time it starts pontificating about "managed democracy," a policy which it has supported in the past to protect its own interests.

Whenever somebody talks about "managed democracy" I can't help but think of Dostoyevsky and The Grand Inquisitor in the Brothers Karamazov.

1 comment:

Jotman said...

I liked your point about "managed democracy."