We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Thursday, September 11, 2008

THAILAND: Who Holds the Flag of Genuine Democracy?

Who holds the flag of genuine democracy?


Who holds the flag to genuine democracy in Thailand? Is it the government of the ruling People Power Party (PPP)? Is it the opposition Democrats? Or is it the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) protesting in the middle of Ratchadamnoen Avenue in downtown Bangkok?

The question reflects the classic debate in political science classes around the world, on the virtues of representative and participatory democracy.

The ruling PPP is an offshoot of the now defunct Thai Rak Thai party. Widely popular due to programmes initiated by former PM Thaksin Shinawatra, the PPP won an astounding 233 seats in the 2007 election with 100 (out of 135) from the Northeast and 48 (out of 77) from the North, plus about 20 party-list seats from both regions.

The PPP claims that they democratically won the election against all odds - since the present constitution and the election were skewed in favour of the opposition, being manipulated by the military junta. The people had spoken in their favour and given them the legitimacy to govern.

The opposition Democrat is the oldest political party in Thailand. Its stronghold is limited to the South and winning Bangkok in the election.

But they are seen as taking sides with the PAD by the majority of the people in the North and Northeast, so in those regions the Democrats can barely find credible candidates to run under their banner, let alone win any seats.

The challenge for the Democrats is to break out from being perceived as a regional party and regain the national stature they had in their glory days.

The PAD began as an anti-Thaksin pressure group. Claiming credit in overthrowing the "Thaksin regime," they latched on the present PPP government with a vengeance. The PAD accused the PPP of election fraud through vote buying, and said the government was actually a "Thaksin nominee" defending ex-PM Thaksin's interests, not that of the people.

The PAD's success is rooted in its being able to build a strong community of support from people who distrust ex-PM Thaksin in particular and elected politicians in general. Utilising modern communications techniques and outspoken words through cable TV and internet websites, the PAD reached directly to the frustrated population.

Prominent academic Thirayuth Boonmi recently commented that the PAD had now increased its level of activity to the point that it must not be considered as a mere "protest group" but a "political movement". The PAD is working on its "New Political Model" and contemplates transforming into a political party.

So, is it representative democracy through political parties, or participatory democracy in the streets PAD-style the genuine democracy in Thailand?

In a representative democracy, people elect someone to act on their own behalf. An ideal member of parliament would take the initiative in setting issues to be pursued, while at the same time spending time listening and building consensus before making a stand for the benefit of constituents and the nation as a whole.

Sadly, that connection between those elected MPs and the voters is sometimes lost in the Thai political process.

Of course, MPs do spend time in their districts, usually to hand out patronage of various government services which provide comfort and help out their constituents in mundane affairs. That is deemed enough to get elected next time around.

With such an attitude, politicians had a free hand. Political parties became gatherings of people looking for vehicles to power. And that political power, together with the related wealth, is shared within a few groups of elite consisting of politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and the top echelons of the military and the police.

This is a structural flaw in Thai representative democracy. It is the kind that creates distrust of politicians, political parties, and politics in general, that fuels pressure group movements like the PAD.

But PAD-style democracy also has its shortcomings.

A society cannot be in a continuous protest mode, especially one that invites retaliation in the streets. The recent clashes in Udon Thani and other provinces signify street participatory democracy getting out of hand.

The way out is to reform the present representative democracy system to be more inclusive.

Political reform must include campaign finance reform and a comprehensive indoctrination of democratic principles.

Political parties must become the ideological and platform consensus-building body they should be. They must not be regionally biased.

Pressure groups are also useful tools in a democracy. They provide checks and balances. But the channels to air their grievances must be within the boundaries of democracy, not anarchy through street rule.

Creating a proper balance between participatory and representative democracy will lead to a more genuine democratic political system for all Thais.

Suranand Vejjajiva served in the Thaksin Shinawatra cabinet and is now a political analyst.

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