I’ve just finished reading Paul Ginsborg’s Democracy: Crisis and Renewal. It’s a short book (just 124 pages) but there is a lot in it that could contribute to ongoing debates about the future of democracy in Thailand. It’s relevance to Thailand should come as no surprise given that Ginsborg is also the author of a study of Silvio Berlusconi whose billionaire authoritarianism is often compared to that of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Ginsborg argues that electoral democracy is in crisis throughout the world. He describes a crisis of quality rather than quantity. There are now more democratic countries than ever. But within these countries there is growing disillusionment with the democratic process. People increasingly feel that political parties don’t have their interests at heart. Political processes are dominated by big capital. Cronyism, clientism and corruption are rampant. The public has withdrawn into the self-interested private sphere of consumption and television viewing.

Disillusionment with democracy is reflected in diminishing voter turnout in electoral contests. Ginsborg cites declining voting figures from the European Union. In the European Parliament elections of 2004 less than half of the electorate voted in many western European countries. In Eastern Europe the situation was even worse: 38.5% in Hungary, 28.3% in the Czech Republic and only 17% in Slovakia. “Although there are many reasons for these figures,” Ginsborg writes, “there is one that all shared – the feeling among large swathes of the European electorate that participation in the democratic process had little meaning.” (34)

I’m not convinced that voter turnout in European Parliament elections is a useful barometer of international democratic sentiment – nor that the cited figures are really so bad for non-national elections – but Ginsborg cogently pursues the common argument that elections, although necessary, are insufficient for sustaining a modern vibrant democracy. His focus on electoral disillusionment resonates with the sentiments of many commentators (and street protesters) in Thailand. Notwithstanding healthy voter turnouts in recent elections, and research that points to high levels of voter satisfaction with democracy, many commentators argue that Thai political life has been hollowed out, leaving only an electocratic facade. Many would read Ginsborg’s cautionary words as a fair assessment of the state of democracy under Thaksin and his People Power Party allies:

Democracy has many enemies waiting in the wings: politicians and movements that are for the moment constrained to play by its rules, but whose real animus is quite another – populist, manipulative of the modern media, intolerant and authoritarian. They will seize their chance if we do not reform our democracies swiftly. (12)

So much for crisis. What about renewal?

Ginsborg is an advocate for participatory democracy. Electoral democracy, whereby voters chose representatives who then act on their behalf with little direct accountability until the next election, needs to be combined with the active participation of an engaged and critical citizenry. Citizens need to be drawn out of their private sphere of consumption and conformity into a public sphere of debate, deliberation and decision making. We need more “active and dissenting citizens” (44).

What might these active and dissenting citizens look like? Like People’s Alliance for Democracy protesters performing their ablutions in the grounds of Government House? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Ginsborg presents a model whereby families are “connected to civil society by means of thriving networks of autonomous organisations” (48). He acknowledges the limitations of civil society, but places a strong emphasis on involvement in NGOs and on forms of “deliberative democracy.” His favourite case study is the participatory budgeting process adopted in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. A series of meetings, at various spatial scales, are held in which citizens (and their delegates) contribute to the formation of the city’s spending program. In 2002 over 30,000 of the city’s 1.3 million residents participated in the process. Final budgetary decisions in Porto Alegre are made by elected representatives but their power and responsibility is “modified, enriched and institutionally constrained by the deliberative and participatory activity that is taking place around them” (71).

Ginsborg presents a compelling case for a more meaningful and engaged form of democracy. His argument is strengthened, not weakened, by his open acknowledgement of the practical limitations of participatory approaches to democracy. But in this book (and I haven’t had a chance to read his other works) there seems to be a more fundamental limitation in his argument. This limitation lies in his focus on institutions rather than culture. His approach to electoral democracy is informed by an image, if I can simplify somewhat, of institutionally disengaged, television-watching families who occasionally emerge from their private spheres to cast desultory and conformist votes. Participatory democracy, by contrast involves active citizenship – joining organisations, attending meetings and forming committees. The electoral citizen is a passive recipient of government handouts. The participatory citizen is engaged in the budget process itself.

These two visions of democracy risk overlooking a vast cultural substratum of political engagement. Political debate, discussion and dissent takes place in all sorts of informal contexts that few would associate with Ginsborg’s more institutional vision of civil society. Ginsborg acknowledges the political importance of family life (and this is pursued in another of his books) but his conclusion is that “under modern consumer capitalism most families … are overwhelmingly conformist … and self-absorbed” (47). I’m not so sure. Whatever the faults of the media, modern families have an unprecedented view of the political process and can reflect, practically in real time, on the decisions of their elected representatives. Absorption in, and reflection on, the modern realities of household economy readily translates into political discussion and dissent. Interest rates, fuel prices, food prices, education polices, infrastructure funding and affordable health care are politically volatile issues in many countries precisely because they represent points of intersection between government decision making and the aspirations and anxieties of families. “Populist” governments can be easily condemned for their lack of attention to participatory inclusion but they are often finely attuned to the “kitchen table” deliberations of their electorate. I’m not convinced that this vast informal substratum of political activism is any less significant for sustaining democracy than the mobilisation of a small percentage of the population in a municipal budget process.

In recent decades Thailand has witnessed a dramatic growth in the strength and diversity of its civil society. The 1997 constitution had specific provisions for citizen participation and strengthened the role of local communities. This was certainly a positive development. Many feel that Thaksin rode rough-shod over these important reforms, using his electoral dominance, legal opportunism and brute force to neuter the 1997 constitution’s more participatory elements. The recent citizen activism pursued by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) can be interpreted, in part, as a response to attempts by Thaksin and his People Power Party heirs to assert the primacy of electoral mandates over civil society engagement. I doubt Ginsborg’s model of “active and dissenting” citizens would extend as far as the PAD’s coup-courting provocation, but his book is a useful reminder of the importance of maintaining an appropriate balance between representative and participatory modes of democratic government. The vibrancy, diversity and effectiveness of Thailand’s civil society needs to be protected and nurtured.

But we shouldn’t get too carried away by the democratic allure of civil society. In democratic systems most people chose to participate in informal and often barely visible ways. The vast majority of people in Thailand make their political wishes known not by signing up for civil society endorsed activism but by going quietly to the ballot box and casting their vote. We need to be careful that in promoting participatory democracy we don’t delegitimize the idiosyncratic values, motives, knowledge and anxieties that individuals take to the ballot box when they choose their representatives. This informal political culture also needs vigorous defence. Civil society organisations in Thailand could play an important role in this defence but many of them seem luke warm about electoral power because elections produce governments that they don’t like. Active and dissenting citizenship needs to be informed by respect for, and acceptance of, the views of those who engage with politics in different ways.