Political scientist Michael Connors has written an important, provocative and colourful article (published both on his blog and in the Bangkok Post) which takes aim at international commentary on the ongoing political crisis in Bangkok. I’m not sure if he had New Mandala in his sights, but the argument that opposition forces in Thailand should pursue an electoral rather than confrontational strategy seems to particularly rile him.
Drawing on Marx, Connors argues that those who advocate electoral solutions are “parliamentary cretins” who are seemingly unaware of the main game in Thai politics. The main game is a complex and high stakes struggle among competing factions of the Thai elite. It is in the “rude external world” outside parliament that the current elite battle will be decided. This is the main game for Connors. Talk of respect for electoral process is no more than “sanctimonious dross.”
I’m not convinced that the existence of elite conflict means that advocacy for electoral solutions is misplaced or sanctimonious. All countries experience, to varying degrees, high stakes battles amongst factions of the elite. Such conflict warrants detailed exposure and analysis. We certainly shouldn’t ignore it in the naive hope that the ballot box can resolve everything. But elections are one proven method of weighing up diverse viewpoints that exist throughout the population. Elite conflict does not take place in a world of its own – it generates and draws inspiration from these diverse viewpoints. Elections also force the elite to pause, in some cases only briefly, and give attention to the aspirations of the entire population.
For Connors, the parliament is meaningless. It is a tool cynically deployed in elite battles. Democracy itself, for Connors, is a process whereby the people are subjected to the rule of the elite. I suspect underlying this argument is a view (perhaps grounded in personal experience in Australian protest movements) that direct action on the streets (or in the forests) is a more legitimate and authentic form of political participation than casting a vote.
Taking to the streets is an honourable part of the democratic tradition. But where the deliberate strategy of the protest leaders is to obliterate a diverse and dynamic process of national political decision making – and where the protest leaders deliberately provoke a government crackdown and explicitly court a military coup – I have no hesitation in joining the cretinous commentariat in condemning them.