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The Failure of Thailand’s Democracy?

A unity coalition government may be only way out of Thailand’s political impasse.

December 23, 2013

Credit: ilf_ via Flickr

Much like Egypt earlier this year, Thailand is witnessing the curious sight of mass street demonstrations in favor of less democracy.

As in Egypt, a small urban middle class that once demanded democratic rule finds it unbearable to be ruled by parties representing the majority rural poor and emergent middle class. Now, Thailand’s urban protesters are demanding the Prime Minister and ruling elite be physically removed from the country and want to abolish democratic institutions like the parliament.

Thailand ranks as the most unequal nation in Asia. The huge income gap between rich and poor shapes the Thai society into a pyramid structure. As a result, the relatively poor “Red Shirts” faction represent a 70% majority in the general population. This population, as voters, welcome populist policies.

Meanwhile, the “Yellow Shirts” now demonstrating in the streets against “Red” rule represent the 30% minority who are the older middle class, urban shopkeepers and wealthy elite.

Permanent impasse?

Therefore, based on the one-person-one-vote principle, it is no surprise that the popular Pheu Thai Party and its previously banned iterations have comfortably won every free election since 2001. In contrast, the main opposition party last won an election in 1992.

Even the promise of fresh elections is thus an unacceptable solution to end the current demonstrations. The opposition has rejected the next February elections because they expect to lose again – and probably will, just based on the math.

This is just the latest impasse in what seems like a rolling breakdown of political society in Thailand for the past eight years or so.

Unlike during the crisis period in 2006, instead of another coup, Thailand’s influential military has confirmed its support for a “fair and clean” elections next February.

However, if the politically polarized Thai society cannot reach a real reconciliation and a general consensus on democracy, the election results will not matter.

Without addressing the fact that the two main political coalitions represent entirely different interest groups and bases – one of which is much larger than the other – with no crossover appeal, neither “Red” nor “Yellow” will succeed independently.

Thinking outside the box

If the “Red” and the “Yellow” are truly incompatible and unwilling to accept each other’ rule, then perhaps Thailand should just separate the people into two governments.

This outrageous idea will, of course, never be accepted, because it would cause the de facto separation the Thai nation into an urban core and an independent countryside. However, if such a longstanding confrontational politics continues, Thai society will enjoy only de jure solidarity anyway.

Instead of creating two governments, which will surely not be acceptable, then how about one single grand coalition government between the ruling and opposition party? This could serve as a transitional solution to dissolve social hatred and might reorganize the country’s political alignments.

This may seem like another silly idea, but it has worked in countries such as Greece and Albania. Do the major opposing Thai parties have the political courage and wisdom to try it?

They likely would say they can’t make it work, due to their different but deeply vested interests, as well as those influences from the military and the monarchy. But all of them have been suffering from a chaotic Thailand, a country heavily dependent on foreign tourism that drops off sharply with each crisis.

If the alternative solution is geographic partition or a return to dictatorship, they should think seriously about combining to work together.

Don’t give up yet

Thailand may not lack democratic elections, but both Thai political parties seem lack of understanding the nature of a good liberal democracy. Thailand needs a democracy where majority rule is allowed to proceed but where minority interests are also acknowledged.

In an ideal liberal democracy, responsible and clean political parties should try to unite the whole society and maximize the interests for all citizens, rather than serving only the interests of certain groups and regions.

A flawed democracy seems to have failed in Thailand, but trying to fix those flaws rather than giving up on democracy will prove to be a more sustainable solution to end the vicious coup-election-coup cycle and the widening political divide among the regions.


Thailand is witnessing the curious sight of mass street demonstrations in favor of less democracy.

The huge income gap between rich and poor shapes the Thai society into a pyramid structure.

If the politically polarized Thai society cannot reach reconciliation, election results will not matter.

If the Red and Yellow are truly unable to cooperate, perhaps Thailand should just separate into two governments.

A grand coalition between Thai ruling and opposition parties could dissolve social hatred and reorganize alignments.

A flawed democracy may have failed in Thailand, but trying to fix those flaws is better than giving up on democracy.