Winston Churchill once said, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” My interpretation is, like all other forms of government, democracy is a rule by the elites, the key difference is, here the elites are nicer.
In Thailand and the world, “democracy” is often a word conveniently thrown around, with disdain by some, with enthusiasm by others and with obsession by too many. The casual understanding of democracy is that it is a form of government by the people and for the people, but this simply isn’t so.
Take the American two-party system. In the presidential election, the people vote for the electoral college consisting of 538 members, who then vote for the president. But who selected these 538 electors? The two political parties, Democrat and Republican.
Take the last presidential election. The Democrat selected five presidential candidates and the Republican selected 17 presidential candidates. Then through respective election processes, they were down to one each. We know what happened next. The point here is, the American people voted for the selected, both in the electoral college and the presidential candidate.
The key word is “selected”, not “elected”, as before there’s any election, there’s first and foremost, selection.
Select by whom? By the two political parties, Democrat and Republican. What are political parties? They are wealthy and powerful organizations that compete in politics.
The key words are “wealth” and “power”. Who holds wealth and power? The elites.
Furthermore, what’s the point of political freedom (take the “freedom” with a grain of salt) without free markets (take the “free” with a grain of salt)? It’s no secret that democracy and capitalism are in the same bed. Hence, political elites and economic elites are the joint captains of the free world (take the “free” with a grain of salt).
The same applies to the parliamentary system. The people vote for candidates who become members of parliament who then vote for the prime minister. But the candidates for parliament and premiership are all first and foremost selected by political parties, i.e. the elites.
In Thailand, it gets even more elitist. In the coming (hopefully) elections slated for February 2019, the same rule of selection applies, but with an added bonus where 250 senators selected by the current junta government also get to vote for the prime minister. So here we have a triple entente of rule by political, economic and military elites. But more specifically, military elites.
In the representative democracies that we’ve discussed, it is the elites who end up representing the people. But even in a direct democracy (if any exists) where the people get to vote directly for their leaders, it would require those with wealth and power to organize and campaign to win elections. Who has wealth and power? The elites.
Therefore, the sum of democracy is rule of the elites.
Nonetheless, the vote is important in democracy for three reasons: choice, change and power.
Firstly, it means the people have a choice. Even if it’s a choice between one elite group or another, still there’s a choice, unlike in any other political system.
Secondly, it means the people can change a government. Every four years is the usual timeline for elections. But even in the meantime, if a government is found corrupted or incompetent, the people may march and demand new elections.
Noted that the system allows for the changing of government, but not the bringing down of elite rule. For example, the people may rise up against elite rule, as on September 17, 2011 in the event known as Occupy Wall Street. The people rightly called themselves “the 99%”. While the elites are branded accurately as “the 1%”.
The result was, the elites promptly sent in security forces to bash heads and make arrests. It was all over within a day, leaving no doubt as to who’s in charge. The elites, not the people.
Change is limited, but still democracy allows for changes.
Thirdly, by the very nature of the vote, competing elite groups must win favors from the people, therefore the people have power, although the “limited” theme continues here. Limited power may sound depressing, but it’s uplifting when taken into accounts that no other political system is willing to grant any power at all. All things are relative.
Choice, change and power, these are the rights democracy gives to the people. As such, where democracy differs most from all other political systems is in its compromise, a peace offering if you will, between the elites and the people.
The terms of this compromise are specified in the ideology of human rights. Freedom of speech. Freedom of assembly. Freedom of the press. Due process of law. Equality under the law. Social mobility. Universal suffrage. Civil rights. Civil liberty. ETC. Here we have empowerment of the people that comes with freedom and equality. (Take the “freedom” and “equality” with a grain of salt.)
But herein lies the eternal struggle within a democracy. Power is the ultimate human aphrodisiac. The elites want more power, as do the people. It’s the very nature of man.
Hence, in any democracy, the ruling elites would find ways and means to increase their power, and that’s usually done at the expense of the people’s human rights. There’s a reason why even in a developed democracy, the people refer to the government as “The Man”, “The Establishment” or “Big Brother”, etc. The people are advised not to trust “The System”.
Conversely, the people seek to expand their power, and that is usually done at the expense of the ruling elites. Hence, even in developed democracies, there are constant battles where the ruling elites attempt to pass legislation to curb the power of the people, especially in regards to freedom of speech and access to information. While the people constantly march and demonstrate in order to win more rights.
Two additional points worth mentioning:
Firstly, democracy allows for more social mobility than any other system. A farm boy can become a president. An ethnic minority can also become a president. But the irony of life is, once they gain the wealth and power, they become members of the elites. In a dictatorship, a farm boy can become a president also, but usually it is done with guns blazing, not through elections.
Secondly, not all elites are elitists. Humanism and enlightenment are the cornerstone of human evolution. There are elites who champion the rights of the people, otherwise we wouldn’t have democracy and human rights in the first place. The people then should look to these people and support them.
For Thailand, following next year’s elections (if indeed we will have one), no matter which group of the elites win, it is up to the people to demand, first and foremost, a constitution that guarantees human rights and power for the people. But even when this is done, the eternal battle continues, as human rights abuse by the elites have always been rampant even in Thailand’s most democratic times.
In closing, democracy is an eternal tug-of-war between the elites and the people to find a balance of power. But at least democracy affords a fighting chance for the people, where all other forms of government would give none.