Gabriel Ernst

With the recent surge of protests in support of the democracy movement, predominantly young Thais have taken to the streets and the tweets calling for democracy. Over and over again they echo one another. “We want democracy”. But what does democracy mean in this context? 

One democracy activist who preferred to go unnamed told me that what democracy means for the protesters is still “open for debate”. They said “despite two common demands: overthrow dictatorship and limit monarchy’s power, the ongoing student rally throughout the country consists of many people from various ideologies from feminism to environmentalism. Hence, the ‘kind’ of democracy is yet to be decided. However, the real question for any pro-democracy movement is: where does our ’freedom’ lie?”

In regards to existing forms of democracy, there are many in the west who would argue that their contemporary Western electoral democracies are nothing to be desired. There is still a massive gulf of representation between constituents and those elected to serve them. Furthermore in almost all countries there exists a huge gap in the policy preferences of constituents and their representatives. This is particularly dramatic in the US where 69% of voters support establishing universal healthcare, however their representatives show absolutely no interest in doing so. This can be explained of course by the massive lobbying efforts by the private healthcare industry and pharmaceutical groups. So can we still consider the US a democracy or a plutocracy? And if so to what degree? Which begs the question; if Thailand ‘becomes a democracy’ to what degree will it be one? How democratic do you want your democracy to be?

Indeed certain groups in Thailand could argue that the kingdom already is a democracy. Elections held in 2018 put Palang Pratchwat in power. While these elections were dubious, they were still elections. The same is true again of the US, where in 2016 the most popular candidate won the popular vote yet didn’t win the election. This was not even the first time in my own memory where this happened, as in 2000 George Bush gained the presidency due to basic ‘vote counting error’, essentially stealing the presidency from Al Gore. 

Personally of course I would not consider Thailand to be a democracy, nor the US or UK. What I’m saying is that there is a spectrum of ‘democracy’. In fact there are few places in the world where democracy is taken seriously. Two examples spring to mind, both regional rather than national. One in Chiapas, Mexico and another in Rojava, Kurdistan. In both of these systems a more holistic approach to democracy is taken and ‘bottom up’, ‘direct democracy’ is encouraged. This is where local communities have the authority to make decisions about the rules that they live by. Where the community has more power than the higher regional government, and ordinary people take part in discussion, policy making and voting as part of their daily lives. Rather than once every few years, voting for a representative to send to a national government. 

In the west our current form of parliamentary or presidential democracy encourages apathy, a lack of control and a general malaise to power and decision making. Indeed in the UK the democratic process is deeply skewed towards existing powers as the democratic encourage and support this. There was even a referendum in the UK several years ago to change the system to a far more ‘democratic’ way of carrying out elections through proportional representation. The proposed change was of course defeated after a massive lobbying campaign. The same is true in France where it is often the case that a deeply unpopular prime minister is elected due to the unusual system in which France carries out elections. These are examples of parliamentary elections not working in the interest of democracy and I encourage readers to investigate some of the many other democratic systems available, particularly those of the aforementioned Chiapas and Rojava.

Of course as well as electoral democracy, we must also consider both economic and climate democracy. The latter is fairly easy to explain; who would vote for climate catastrophe? Nobody. Yet again and again, in almost every nation on earth our representatives are doing virtually nothing to alleviate the impending catastrophe of climate change. Or on a more local level; what villager would vote to open a coal mine in the middle of their farmland? Again no one, yet this constantly happens under the Thai government and those abroad in supposedly functioning democracies.

As for economic democracy, it can again easily be conceptualised: What if workplaces collectively, democratically, decided upon or voted for how to distribute the profits among the employees? Would 711 workers still make ฿300 a day and CP executives make billions? I think not.

While these more expansive conceptions of democracy may feel quite removed from the current protests, I encourage those calling for democracy to consider what they really mean by the word and to expand their understanding of it, because honestly, a corrupt, western style plutocracy disguised as democracy is hardly worth fighting for.