The Long View
The Thais and us (2)
A question often raised is whether the goings-on in Thailand are a kind of neighborhood mirror of our own contemporary political experience.
Thailand may have a parliamentary system and the Philippines a presidential one, but it seems both nations have a political class that is in a state of siege. Because of that siege, politically, both nations seem to be adrift, as the institutions of the state prove incapable of honoring the mandates given to governments opposed by the political class, big business, and the middle and professional classes. What determines whether governments endure or fall is not institutional legitimacy in terms of electoral mandates and constitutional procedures, but whether the kind of legitimacy the ancient Chinese understood as the “Mandate of Heaven” is accorded or taken away by paternal, non-elected figures.
This used to work, in a crude sense, because these figures were powerful even among the educated and wealthy, in a sense transcending for most classes of people differences that precisely fostered the sort of political divisions that kept wrecking the functioning of the rule of law. But those capable of bestowing or taking away the Mandate of Heaven have succumbed to their own mortality. Thailand’s King is ailing and apparently incapable of intervening. There was also the very real risk that had he intervened at the height of the recent Thai protests, the unthinkable might have happened: outright defiance from the Red Shirts.
Here at home, with no politician capable of mustering the prestige required to be an elder statesman, it fell on prelates to decree whether presidents lost the Mandate of Heaven or not. Specifically, that authority was wielded by Jaime Cardinal Sin through sheer force of personality and the logistical muscle of his archdiocese. But Sin is dead, his archdiocese stripped of territory, and no one can shepherd the Catholic hierarchy anymore. The result has been to blunt the armed forces as a remover of administrations, and they have, institutionally at least, swung back to being the defender of incumbencies. Though of course there are other dynamics at work, broadly speaking, as with the Thai military, the natural inclination of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has been to uphold the status quo.
The result in Bangkok has been as predictable as every effort since 2001 to muster People Power: it all ends with a massive military crackdown whenever the urban or rural poor take the streets. Each time that happens, People Power becomes even more clearly a limited instrument, as it becomes seen as an essentially middle-class phenomenon with elite characteristics.
Nothing could be further from the way in which peaceful non-violent resistance was originally intended, and believed, by its adherents than the manner in which it has ended up more as an instrument for extra-constitutional efforts that proclaim a democratic inspiration on one hand but which have resulted in the increased alienation of the poor from the formal manifestations of democracy on the other.
In a sense, the Philippine political system has more successfully integrated the allies of ousted President Joseph Estrada than the Thai system has with the followers of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Bloomberg summarized the Thai situation as follows: “Since the 2007 election, protesters have been on the streets for 213 days, courts have removed two pro-Thaksin prime ministers, the airports were seized, rival gangs have taken over streets and four emergency decrees were issued. In many ways, it’s an extension of decades of turmoil.”
Philippine courts only had to do so once to justify Estrada’s ouster. Estrada’s allies, after discovering the uncontrollable nature of the followers they unleashed on the Palace gates in May 2001, have refrained from summoning that genie again, or, having disappeared while their followers were beaten up, have lost their capacity to egg on the crowd. Perhaps the late Fernando Poe Jr. could have galvanized his followers into mounting an urban insurrection in May 2004, but both he and, later on, his widow deliberately refrained from doing so.
But the divide is there, between those who once viewed People Power as a means for democratization and those who have come to view it as achieving precisely the opposite. Order has been restored in Bangkok through force of arms, but the loyalists of Thaksin melted away vowing that those who run away live to fight another day – and the seriously disquieting specter of an underground resistance to the government has begun to rise.
Interestingly, I’ve heard quite a few people remark that the upheavals in Thailand seriously torpedoed the arguments of the proponents of parliamentary government for us. The ongoing political crisis in Malaysia, also a parliamentary system under a constitutional monarchy, also suggests that in and of itself parliamentary government is susceptible, if not conducive to, political instability. On the other hand, there isn’t much to be said in defense of the presidential system as it currently exists here at home, with presidents condemned to minority status and thus deprived of mandates that confer legitimacy.
This also suggests that the presidential system in and of itself is not superior to a parliamentary system: it is the constitutional fine print, in either case, that determines if a political system will be stable. Consider Indonesia, which has a more complicated legislative and presidential system than ours, but where, in general, people are congratulating themselves for entrenching democracy, and achieving relative political stability. And yet their recent legislative election and upcoming presidential poll haven’t been adequately studied, or even observed, by Filipinos desiring political reform here at home.