A Thai lesson in democracy

The world needs small triumphs like the Dec. 23 vote in Thailand, which defied the military and its 2006 coup.

Democracy has lately seen setbacks worldwide after decades of expansion, making it necessary to celebrate small triumphs. Two came recently in Turkey and Venezuela after voters used the ballot to defy authoritarian powers. On Dec. 23, it was Thailand's turn. An election there showed again how much voters cling to democratic rights.

The election for parliament gave a surprise win to a Thai political group ousted from power by a military coup only 15 months ago. The coup, which overthrew the five-year-old government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra while he was out of the country, was even condoned by the widely revered king.

Despite the coup, popular resentment at Thailand's traditional elite, as well as pressure on the Army to restore the country's reputation in international markets, forced the military into an early election, and now into a political retreat. More than 70 percent of Thais voted.

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The electoral result also sent a signal to a region still short on democracy, such as in Burma (Myanmar), China, and Vietnam.

Democracy in Thailand has long been wobbly, going back to the 1932 rebellion that created a constitutional monarchy. Since then it has seen 18 military coups, with the one in 1991 thought to be the last. But Mr. Thaksin's populist style of governing, such as giving low-cost credit and healthcare to the rural poor, created strong resentment among the elite and middle class. The military, which sees itself as guardian of the monarchy, saw only political instability and potential power struggles as the country faces a difficult royal succession. King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been on the throne for 61 years.

(Coincidentally, a rebellion in nearby Nepal led to an agreement this week to end that country's centuries-old monarchy.)

After the 2006 coup, the Thai military worked to keep the former prime minister in exile and dissolve his party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais). It pushed through a Constitution meant to keep elected governments weak while shifting more power to the military, bureaucracy, and the king. And two days before the election, a military-controlled legislature passed through a law that weakens political parties and curbs legal rights, giving the military some new powers to act behind the scenes.

Despite such barriers, Thaksin's followers regrouped and started the People Power Party, declaring loyalty to him but choosing a political veteran, Samak Sundaravej, as its leader. The PPP won 233 of 480 seats in Parliament, just shy of a majority but with an opportunity to win over small parties to gain official power.

Whether the party can eventually bring Thaksin back to Thailand without the military bringing him or the party down remains to be seen.

But several lessons have been learned. During its short reign, the military showed it doesn't know how to run an economy so closely tied to global markets. The majority rural poor found their political voice. And Thai voters showed they want to resolve their deep divides – both regional and class – through ballot and debate, not bullets and tanks.

The old order must give way to a new one.

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