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The Myth of Khaki Democracy

NEW YORK – Egypt and Thailand have little in common, except for one thing. In both countries, at different times, educated people who pride themselves on being democrats have ended up applauding military coups against elected governments. They had resisted oppressive military regimes for many years. But, in Thailand in 2006, as in Egypt last month, they were happy to see their political leaders ousted by force.

This perversity is not without reason. The elected leaders in both countries, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand and Mohamed Morsi in Egypt, were good examples of illiberal democrats: they tended to view their electoral success as a mandate to manipulate constitutional norms and behave like autocrats.

They are not alone in this respect. In fact, they are probably typical of leaders in countries with little or no history of democratic government. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is in the same camp. And if the leaders of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had been allowed to take power in 1991, after their early success in a democratic election, they would almost certainly have been illiberal rulers. (Instead, they were crushed by a military coup, before a second round of elections could take place, triggering a brutal eight-year civil war in which an estimated 200,000 people died.)

The aftermath of the 2006 coup in Thailand was not nearly so bloody. But the bitterness lingers among Shinawatra’s supporters – even now, when his sister, Yingluck, is Prime Minister. Street violence is a constant threat. Only the frail and ailing 85-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej still functions as a symbol of national cohesion. Without him, fighting between the rural poor and the urban elites could quickly erupt again. This does not bode well for Thai democracy. Another military intervention is the last thing the country needs.