Democracy, Protests, and Parameters

One suspects Thailand and Ukraine are generally not two countries thought of in tandem. But thanks to the fortuitous (from a commentator’s perspective) overlap of their respective protest movements, there is finally a good reason to do exactly that.* Ukrainians have been camped out at Euromaidan for weeks in protests triggered by Yanukovych’s decision to not sign an Association Agreement with the EU at the Vilnius Summit at the end of November. But they reflect, and have since come to represent, widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo in Ukraine – rampant corruption; excessive Russian influence in domestic affairs; weak rule of law; constrained economic opportunities. The protesters’ grievances are expansive, legitimate (the bullshit protestations of the Russian Duma notwithstanding), and unlikely to be legitimately addressed via the ballot box in non-protest-induced elections (Yanukovych would be widely expected to either outright rig or lean heavily on the outcome of 2015’s presidential elections).

Then you have the weeks-long protests in Thailand, which were triggered by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s ill-advised attempt to ram an amnesty through parliament whose primary goal was to permit the return to Thailand of her billionaire brother. Deposed in a coup in 2006, Thaksin Shinawatra fled Thailand in 2008 while indicted for corruption charges. He was convicted in absentia, and is widely believed by the opposition (not without good reason, it would seem) to be running the country via Skype and his sister. In the face of mass popular opposition Yingluck dropped the amnesty bill and, faced with continued protests, called new elections for February, which her party expects to win going away. As you may have intuited, this does not sit well with the opposition, which continues to mobilize in large numbers and make vague calls for a hand-selected “people’s council” to replace parliament.

In Thailand, as in Ukraine, the government is confronting protests set-off by a particular policy choice that have since metastasized into expressions of general dissatisfaction with the governing party. And yet the Ukrainians at Euromaidan have been broadly supported in the West, whereas Thailand’s opposition has been widely ignored or criticized. But this outcome isn’t the result of a pernicious double standard. Rather, it underscores the importance of parameters in a democracy, and ultimately, the necessity of certain normative judgments.

The parameters bit is fairly straightforward; for a democracy to function actual democratic norms have to be respected. Thailand’s opposition hasn’t won an election in 20 years, and:

“This is an anti-democratic movement that wants to remove an elected government,” Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies told Foreign Policy. “Their aim is to make it ungovernable and hope for military intervention. Because the Democrat Party can’t win in an election.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s protesters are demonstrating widespread support for things which are necessary for a functioning democracy.

Underpinning any assessment of protests like this is the presumed ability to discern not only democratic norms, but that democracy (at least, the way “the West” understands it) is a norm to be valorized in the first place. Vladimir Putin, for one, would disagree.** And he’s not alone in this regard. Large parts of the developing world (and anecdotally, a surprising number of academics) resent the West’s imposition of liberal democracy. This is enormously silly, and the protests in Ukraine and Thailand show it.

*Haven’t you just been waiting for a good opportunity to put the two countries in the same sentence?
**Required disclaimer: a puppy dies every time you link to Russia Today, but it was necessary in this case