America is showing why strong political institutions are needed in the fight against authoritarianism

“Good evening. So Congressman John Lewis, before his passing, wrote: “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.”

Kamala Harris’s opening remarks on November 8, the day Joe Biden was declared president-elect, was inspirational. But it also serves as a critical reminder of democracy’s fragility. 

There is no doubt that President Donald Trump and his campaign team did everything possible and continues to raise doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020.

For long time observers of Thai politics, it was all too familiar: Trump rallied his base to surround polling stations in battleground states, demanding a stop to the counting of mail-in ballots, and filing multiple lawsuits in all of the battleground states. In some shape or form, these tactics have been tried in Thailand.

But where Thai political institutions succumbed to the pressure of autocracy, American institutions stood firm and properly defended democracy.

The scenes of Trump’s armed supporters surrounding polling stations counting votes is eerily similar to Thailand’s PDRC’s blockade of polling stations in 2014. Nonetheless, the local law enforcement and national guards heroically performed their duties of defending democracy by protecting the polling stations, despite being surrounded by armed militia and pro-Trump supporters chanting “Stop The Count”.

In contrast, there were no efforts from the law enforcement or the authorities to prevent PDRC from blockading the polling stations in 2014. Brave citizens who chose to exercise their right to vote, had to brave the thuggery, with some even assaulted. None of the criminals receiving any charges.

In the United States Federal and Local Election Commission illustrated their firm independence over the President’s influence and interference by not caving into the unsubstantiated claims of voting irregularities, defiantly stating that there is no evidence of electoral fraud.

The same cannot be said of Somchai Srisutthiyakorn’s election commission in 2014. Photographic evidence of Khun Somchai’s presence in the PDRC rally did little to reassure the public of the election commission’s apolitical stance. Therefore, when issues such as PDRC’s surrounding the election commission office to prevent electoral candidates from submitting their applications in the south or when ballots for 14 southern provinces got stuck at the postal office and were unable to be distributed to each locality, there were genuine doubts that the election was not organized in good faith. The election commission also did not ask for any additional level of security and protection from the authorities, despite knowing in advance that the election office in 20 provinces had been besieged by PDRC’s protesters on the day prior to the election. Although Khun Somchai has recently insisted that he did his job to the best of his ability and had always remained apolitical, public doubts still lingered on six years later. We’re not even mentioning the election commission team in the 2019 Election, handpicked by junta, and criticized universally for irregularities.

American media also took an unprecedented step in their dedication to protect democracy in the 2020 election, which is remarkable considering its partisan nature.

MSNBC, NBC News, CNBC, CBS News, ABC News and National Public Radio have taken the unprecedented decision to cut away from White House Press Conference after President Trump started to make baseless claims of electoral fraud. Most impressively, however, is Fox News’s decision to cut off Kayleigh McEnany’s White House Press Conference after she started making yet another baseless allegation of ‘illegal votes.’

In an era of media polarization, it is admittedly difficult for those in the media to not fall into the trap of becoming a propagandic mouthpiece for their political alignment and representatives. Yet there is a fundamental difference between rooting for your candidate and playing a part to undermine democracy itself. Instead of blindly covering what appears to be a blatant effort to undermine American’s democracy, the media’s decision to protect the integrity of democracy from baseless allegations must be applauded, especially when holding to account close allies.

The Thai media’s role in the political crisis of 2014 could not have been more different. Media censorship, political interference and intimidation has always been part of Thai politics. Press freedom, ranked 140th from 180 nations according to Reporters Without Borders, has been a long-term issue of Thai democracy. Attacks on the media have been prevalent under the tenure of Thaksin’s, Yingluck’s and Prayut’s governments. It would not be too outlandish to claim that the only commonalities between these three governments is the lack of respect for freedom of speech and thin-skinned intolerance of criticism.

With this context in mind, perhaps it is not too surprising that the mainstream media at the time reported the PDRC protest from a sensationalized angle for the sake of ratings, rather than with democratic integrity. Meanwhile, partisan channels such as Blue Sky and DTV/DNN are more focused on rallying their respective political base, which occasionally crosses the line by openly calling for sedition. Integrity of democracy was the furthest thing from the minds of these media outlets.

The only notable exception that comes to mind is ThaiPBS and its shows “Policy Debate (เถียงให้รู้เรื่อง)” and “Public Forum (เวทีสาธารณะ)” that painstakingly tried to create a public space for political discussions in hope of finding democratic resolutions. However, the faith of such programs were short-lived as presenters, like Ms. Nattaya Waeweerakup, were forced to resign from their positions through threats and intimidation. Such draconian measures are still clearly evident in 2020 with the recent government order to shut down Prachathai, The Standard, VoiceTV and The Reporters. It is hard to defend democracy when the government can and has used shut-down and gag orders to intimidate the board.

From a legal perspective, threats of judicial activism interfering in The 2020 US Election has so far not materialized.  Due to the lack of evidence, lawsuits filed by President Trump’s campaign team have been rejected by the courts, demonstrating clear judgement to remain apolitical and independent from those in power.

Thai Constitutional Court, on the other hand, has played a much more active role in politics since 2006. Within the span of two decades, the Constitutional Court has passed the verdicts to dissolve two political parties (Thai-Rak-Thai and People’s Power Party), declare the results of two general elections to be null and void, rule that Chatchart Sittipan’s mega infrastructure project to be unconstitutional, seize Thaksin’s asset worth 4.6 Billion THB and remove two prime ministers from office.

In many aspects, the court’s role has expanded more than that of a political ajudicator to become the ultimate arbiter on who gets to form the government. And since unfavorable verdicts tend to be passed on to only one political side, doubts in the court’s impartiality and apolitical stance have been on the rise. More recently, the inconsistent ruling on the government’s and opposition’s campaign financing, MP’s holding media shares and dissolution of Thai-Raksa-Chart and Future Forward Party further adds to what is already a confidence crisis in the country’s justice system.

As of the time of this writing, President Donald Trump and the Republican party has yet to officially congratulate the President-elect Joe Biden on his victory. Nonetheless, there are notable figures from the GOP that have, such as Senator Mitt Romney, Senator Marco Rubio, Cindy McCain, Jeb Bush and Former President George W Bush. The spirit of fair play and sportsmanship is the backbone of American peaceful transition of power for over 200 years. The absence of such ethos is at the very core of the current political crisis in Thailand. 

Any claims from the Democrat Party that the boycott of 2006 and 2014 elections were acts of defiance against corruption is entirely discredited by Suthep Thaugsuban’s PDRC rally to topple a democratically elected government. The benefit of hindsight reveals that such acts were not civil disobedience but rather a disgraced desperation to gain power at any cost from a serial electoral loser.

Meanwhile, Pheu Thai’s role in the rash passage of the amnesty bill, the trigger of PDRC’s rally, was not conducted in good faith and definitely not in the spirit of fair play. More damage was done when Pheu Thai tried to politicize and coerce the election commission into approving a 20 Billion THB Loan from the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives for the rice subsidy scheme, knowingly unconstitutional under caretaker governments.

There were no angels in that fight, and neither side showed any regards for democracy or due processes. Both parties viewed themselves as bigger and more important than the democratic system, which ultimately culminated into the political crisis that lasted until today. Fair play and sportsmanship simply never took place in Thai politics. This is not the type of representation that we deserve.

One can’t help but feel a tinge of jealousy watching the American’s sense of civic duty on display in the 2020 Election. Images and videos of protesters rallying and chanting “Count Every Vote” in multiple cities across the U.S., despite the presence of armed and unarmed “Stop the Vote” protesters, is a clear indicator of how much democracy is valued. In comparison, NCPO was met with very little to no resistance from the public on 22 May 2014, the day the coup was initiated. Obviously, no one would want to risk their lives going up against the military, especially one with brutal records of civilian crackdown. However, that was the moment of truth. That the price of freedom was too expensive means we now have a bargain basement government.

There are very little similarities between American and Thai societies, given the vast differences in the countries’ culture and history. However, as a democratic society, there is a tremendous amount of learning that we would do well to learn from the Americans. The simple truth is that, throughout its modern history, Thailand has not been faithful enough to democracy.

The finger pointing at the politicians as the architect of Thai democratic downfall is a lazy assertion that misses the forest for the tree. We as a society have been failing democracy in almost every aspect from law enforcement to media integrity to civic duty. The Thai student protests from 2020 offer a glimpse of democratic awakening, but the road to Thai democracy is long and in much need of repair.

By Khun Seri Chon

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