On middle classes and vote disposal

The situation in Thailand is now reverted to what is essentially a standard practice since the establishment of a constitutional monarchy in 1932: Absolutist military rule with backing from King Bhumibol Adulyadej, because direct absolute monarchy is so unmodern. The country did not have a stable democratic government for about 60 years until approximately 1992, after the tenth coup since 1932 forced civilian elections without military meddling. That lasted only 14 years, before another coup forced the one Prime Minister to complete his term, Thaksin Shinawatra, out of office and out of the country.  Since then, there has been either military rule or military-backed rule, with some attempts at neither in between.

What is interesting is that, for all the factionalism in Thai politics that is built on either complete support or less-than-complete support of the sclerotic Royal Family, the main factor in this situation is a middle class that is either indifferent or actively antagonistic to the principles of democracy. This much is particularly clear with the leading supporters of the coup, a People’s Democratic Reform Committee made of middle-class figures in Bangkok and the southern provinces, calling for an unelected “people’s council” (whatever that means) to reform the Thai government.

Uri Friedman argues that such coups happen because the middle class seeks stability:

In both Egypt and Thailand, the protest movements that prompted military intervention enjoyed support from middle- and upper-class citizens. These aren’t isolated cases. Joshua Kurlantzick, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, has argued that around the world, a growing middle class “is choosing stability over all else,” and embracing “the military as a bulwark against popular democracy.”

However, to say stability is the primary interest lacks a lot of nuance. In both cases, but particularly Thailand’s, the governments that were toppled won significant majorities or at least a majority coalition in (mostly) fair elections, and were at least initially stable.  Seeking stability by agitating and overthrowing a government that has done little to destabilize the country sounds, well, counter-intuitive.

The greater interest of the middle class, in Thailand and in similar countries, is not so much stability but a belief of wanting their side to be the rulers at all costs, even if it means throwing away their votes (which they literally did in 2006, instigating the coup that got rid of Thaksin). The middle class in Bangkok and the south has long been supporters of the Democrat Party, whose electoral strategies seem to follow a pattern of simply placating to those voters, and hoping that the multiparty nature of Thailand will play to their favor. Consequently, even in elections where they have earned the most votes, they have never earned more than a quarter of the electorate, and a third of the legislature.

When the Shinawatras rolled around and started winning actual majorities with the Thai Rak Thai Party and its successors, then, the Democrat Party started looking ineffectual. The middle class, becoming sore losers and knowing that the military would happily take over at the drop of a hat, started looking for anything to bring them down. These people were not looking to keep the country stable, but rather have someone they like (the Democrats) or can like (the military) in power instead of someone they hate (Thaksin and his supporters). That demonstrates not so much a failure in civics, but a lack of grace.

Democratic institutions, when young, tend to suffer the most conflict not from being unable to run a fair election, but being unable to sustain a government against those who feel they have been denied power. The middle class, especially those in developing countries such as Thailand, tends to feel strongest about the matter, and collectively have more resources to do something about it. The greatest fear in these situations comes not those with power in money or influence, but those with power in numbers, in particular from the poor. In the the 19th century, the solution was to simply deny the poor the vote on principle of lacking property or assets. With that being an unreasonable option in this day and age, the best a rising middle class can do is throw away their votes and hope their active dismissal of government will spur action and put the right people in power.

But such thinking is a reflection of personal arrogance, and an insularity that fails to take into account the existence of people outside their own neighborhood. The disposal of the vote for the sake of having “the right people” in power also comes across as short-sighted, and incompetent. It is little wonder that the general outlook  of Thailand looks dim: By welcoming the generals’ return to power, the middle class that brought them to power displays a disinterest in managing one’s own affairs, akin to a child who refuses to leave diapers.

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