BANGKOK — This year hasn’t been kind to the brand of liberal democracy championed by progressives and internationalists.
First came the election of populist strongman Rodrigo Duterte as president of the Philippines, which led to mass extrajudicial killings that enraged civil rights activists. Then came the referendum vote to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union, a victory that rode on waves of nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments.
And then, there’s Donald Trump. A man without any prior governmental experience thought by many analysts to be unelectable. A demagogue who declared himself the only one able to save his nation by turning into reality some of the most extreme far-right rhetoric, such as barring Muslims from entry and deporting undocumented immigrants.
But advocates of liberal democracy in Thailand said they still have faith in the system. A number said Friday they still believe democracy works, albeit the needs for some improvements, and they urge Thais to learn respect for electoral legitimacy from America, where opponents of President-elect Trump accepted defeat yet pledged to continue their fight by constitutional means.
“No matter what happened, it still works,” said Lakkana Punwichai, a columnist and TV personality better known as KamPhaka. “He won within the system. We have to respect that. It’s their destiny, they have chosen it. They have the right to experiment with leaders of their countries.”
She said democracy doesn’t only consist of elections; rather, it also includes a strong civil society and systems of check and balance that should prevent an autocratic leader from infringing upon civil rights, even if he wants to.
“I don’t think Trump can actually incite people into killing Muslims or building a wall. He can’t do whatever he pleases,” Lakkana said. “As long as the society insists on rights and liberty and diversity in differences, it won’t happen.”
Her sentiment is shared by Sirawith Seritiwat, co-founder of Resistant Citizen, a group that’s facing trial in military court for defying the junta’s ban on protest by calling for a timely election.
“It doesn’t affect my confidence in democracy,” Sirawith said. “The system opens a way for trials and errors. This kind of administration has its limits. Elections will return in four years. People can learn and make decisions for themselves. It reflects the strength and their respect for the rule of law. No one can overthrow that rule or election as happened in Thailand.”
He said Trump’s presidency will be a decisive test of the United States’ system of checks and balances.
“Will the check-and-balance and scrutiny allow Trump to do radical things that he said? It will prove the American system whether it can handle the issues,” Sirawith said.
Activist and political commentator Janewit Chueasawatee, who had openly expressed his support for Hillary Clinton, said he’s surprised by Trump’s ascension as much as anyone else, but he’s also impressed by the graceful manner in which Clinton and her supporters accept their defeat.
“Even though she won the popular vote, everyone accepts the result. Right now some people are protesting, but eventually they will accept it, too,” Janewit said. “There’s also effort by the losers to talk to their supporters about the need to respect democracy. But in Thailand we don’t often see this phenomenon.
“Everything ends at the ballot boxes. That should be a lesson for Thai society.”
Defeat of Ideology or Strategy?
The activists said Trump’s surprise victory Wednesday was not entirely about liberal democracy and its detractors. Rather, a major factor at work was factional politics, or simply apathy.
Pakorn Areekul, a member of anti-junta New Democracy Movement, said he saw in the news that each candidate received fewer votes from their predecessors in their respective parties, which convince him that many former Democrats were disappointed by the Obama administration.
“We can criticize what he said, but he didn’t win because of those things. He won because of people are bored of Democrat policies,” said Pakorn, who’s had numerous run-ins with the military regime because of his activism. “He didn’t win solely because people like him that way.”
He added that Trump won the election in a very unique American system of electoral vote, not direct popular vote, so it shows that Trump wasn’t as widely popular as he made himself to be.
Lakkana said she believes strategic errors on the part of Clinton’s campaign were also to be blamed for turning away voters, and ultimately paving a way for Trump.
“The biggest mistake in her campaign is playing women’s card,” said Lakkana, who’s widely regarded as the most prominent feminist writer in the country. “The way she urged women to vote for her because she’s also a woman. It destroys her credit. I myself would never vote for female politician who told me to vote for her simply because she’s woman.”
Despite of Trump’s consistent remarks antagonizing minorities and women, Lakkana conceded the billionaire managed to tap into voters’ wish to see radical solutions for their economic malaise. So it’s mostly about well-being and money issues that decide the election, not values, she said.
“As someone said, a person needs to be full first before they can appreciate art,” Lakkana said.
Madness of the Crowd?
During and after Trump’s vitriolic campaign, some observers lament that the populist coalition of white supremacists, nationalists and radical conservatives, or the so-called alt right, have found a champion to push their agenda in the highest office.
Is it proof that sometimes trusting a majority an example of trusting the crowd in democracy and ending up with a disaster?
Janewit doesn’t think so. He believes Trump’s supporters can decide for themselves in four years if he met their expectations, and people are capable of changing their minds.
“We have to cut out the rhetoric of ‘so bitter that they’re stupid’,” Janewit said. “If Trump is no good, they will change their mind. In democracy, we have to cut out the idea of ‘poor quality voters.’”
Lakkana, Pakorn and Sirawith also believe it is possible for Trump advocates to change their stance if things go south.
But Pimsiri Petchnamrob, a program officer for Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, said it’s the current brand of democracy in the United States and other countries that’s pushing away voters to firebrand populists promising radical break, such as Trump or Duterte.
Under the “neo-liberal” democracy of the United States and other countries, she said, there is not much public participation, and people have little say in allocation of resources, so it creates conditions ripe for disappointment and bitterness among voters, ready for picking by elite politicians who cloak themselves as viable champions.
“There has to be an alternative to the current system, otherwise it will keep losing to people who rhetoric of fascism,” said Pimsiri, who’s campaigned for stronger democratic institution in Thailand. “Because that kind of rhetoric gives a common feeling that many people share … it makes people proud of their nation. It makes people belong to a certain greatness.”
She called for an “upgraded democracy” that puts more emphasis on direct participation, both in the United States and other countries like Thailand. “People who call themselves leftists and progressives should get to work on that already,” Pimsiri said.