Jun 28 2011
The posters are hung, the rallies and protests have begun, and the alcohol restrictions have been posted: IT’S ELECTION TIME IN THAILAND!
So exactly how does democracy work in the Kingdom, you might ask? It works the same way it works elsewhere: messily.
Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy since 1932 with a prime minister as the head of government, and a regent as the head of state. King Bhumibol Adulyadej is currently the longest-serving regent in the world and is a greatly respected and loved king. Currently, Thailand directly elects 375 members of parliament from geographic districts, and a further 125 are chosen by proportional votes for a political party. There is a second chamber, called the Senate, with 77 members being elected from each of the 76 provinces and one from Bangkok, and 76 appointed members.
Thailand has had a turbulent history with democratic self-rule; it has had more than 15 coup d’états, and 18 changes of constitution. The reforms of the 1930s were focused on limiting the power of the royal family but did little to ensure real democratic government. Thailand was almost always ruled by either a military dictator or a military junta until the early 1990s.
Thailand went through periods of liberalisation (almost always bookended by yet another coup) until 1991, when the democratically elected government was deposed by the military and, a year later in May of 1992, an army general was appointed as the prime minister. Thousands of people took to the streets. The military attempted to crush the protests violently, and a horrified nation watched as people were shot, arrested, and tortured by the military. After three days of violence, the King intervened, the violence was stopped, and a process was started that culminated in the constitution of 1997, widely viewed as the first Thai constitution to set real balances of power for the government and to enshrine citizens’ rights.
Since Black May, as it’s called, Thailand has struggled to accept popularly elected, yet very imperfect governments. Normally, voters would wait to vote them out, but with a history of top-down government change via military intervention, it has proved tempting to just protest until someone kicks out the leaders so everyone can start again, which is what worked in 2006 (military) and again in 2008 (court decision dissolving the ruling party), but didn’t in 2010. Next Sunday’s election is the first “normal” election since 2005, with five years of coup, protests, and political insecurity foreshadowing this event.
That aside, what’s it mean for travellers? It means if you’re here on Sunday, you’ll have a chance to see democracy Thai-style. Check out a local polling station — they’re located in every neighbourhood across Bangkok (if you’re at a loss, ask at the nearest police substation). While visitors (and resident non-Thais) obviously can’t vote, you can enjoy grilled meat, street food treats and the chance to people watch. Also, as soon as the polls close at 15:00, all those election posters become fair game (they are supposed to be removed from the streets by the next morning), so if you want a three-metre high poster of a gila monster wearing a suit, now’s your chance.
Be forewarned: Bars, restaurants, and stores are not allowed to sell beer from 18:00 Saturday, July 2 until midnight Sunday, so stock up if you’re going to need provisions.
DEMOCRACY! DEMOCRACY! DEMOCRACY!
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