Looking for democracy in Thailand's Democrat Party
The Democrat Party has seen the enemy.
The Democrats, whose veterans are at the forefront of the anti-government protests that have shaken Bangkok for the past six weeks, say the enemy is a brutal system that has allowed their political nemesis to remain politically powerful, even from far away in Dubai, in exile. The system has driven them to launch angry protests that have left at least five people dead and littered a few streets with the carcasses of burned-out police trucks. It has kept the party from winning a national election for two decades.
The enemy of the Democrat Party? It's democracy.
Or as protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban calls it, "the tyranny of the parliamentary majority."
When Thailand's elected prime minister refused an opposition demand to step aside, Suthep's answer this week was to effectively declare a new government, in the form of a self-appointed "People's Democratic Reform Committee." He ordered civil servants to answer to the committee, called for a shadow system of volunteers to replace the police and issued an order that Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra be prosecuted for insurrection.
"Today will be a historic day," Suthep roared Monday to tens of thousands of protesters crowding streets around the prime minister's office. Suthep was a Democrat Party leader until he symbolically resigned shortly before the protests began, though he remains strongly identified with the party.
"This will be the first time that the people, the owners of the country, stood up to take back their sovereign power."
On Wednesday, most civil servants appeared to defy Suthep's order to report to the Reform Committee, but the move represents an uncertain and potentially dangerous division in Thai politics, which has been convulsed by repeated, often-violent protests since a 2006 coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck's brother.
The coup exposed a deep division in Thai society. Thaksin's supporters are mostly poor, rural people from the country's north and northeast, drawn to him by government programs he created offering everything from nearly free medical care to guaranteed crop prices.
The traditional elite, meanwhile - high-level civil servants and military officers, aristocrats, professionals and businessmen - remain with the Democrat Party.
While Thaksin's supporters are relative newcomers in Thai politics, they wield the power of numbers. Thaksin or his loyalists have won every national election since 2001.
Thaksin, a billionaire who made his first fortune in telecommunications and has been dogged for years by accusations of shady dealings, has lived in exile since 2008, fleeing a corruption conviction he insists is politically motivated.
His sister Yingluck, who is widely seen as a proxy for her brother - even by many of her own supporters - took power after a landslide victory in 2011.
On Monday, hours before Suthep announced the powers of the new Reform Committee, Yingluck dissolved Parliament and called new elections for Feb. 2. Suthep dismissed the vote a political ploy.
He also knew, however, that there was no way his party would win.
In many ways, the Democrats want a democracy that would have looked at home in 18th-century America or ancient Rome, a democracy where the uneducated masses are kept out of mainstream politics and a small corps of rotating elites sit at the top of the political pyramid.
Protesters believe in Suthep's vision of what he sometimes calls a "perfect democracy," where one man can simply claim the power to anoint a new government if there are enough protesters in the streets.
"Please tell people in your country that we are not crazy," Nuanchan Poonpatana, 50-year-old Bangkok resident dressed in a pink jacket and pink shoes, said at a recent morning as she walked to an anti-Thaksin protest.
Like many of Thaksin's opponents, she sees his government aid programs as national bribery schemes to buy votes.
"The farmers and poor people receive money from him," she said, adding that new elections would change nothing. Yingluck would simply win again.
Suthep's announcement of the Reform Committee was warmly welcomed among the protesters.
Ekgarin Khunchaiprasert, a thin, 27-year-old airport worker, was in the crowds at Suthep's Monday speech. Asked if the self-appointed committee represented the abandonment of democracy, he shook his head.
"Democracy has just begun here today."
Malcolm Foster contributed to this report.
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