Other Commentary

THAILAND/ Where does the ultimate source of legitimacy come from?

2014-06-23 07:43Asia Times

The issue of Thailand after the military coup is crucial for the country—and for all of Asia. It calls into question the problem of legitimacy and justification of power in the modern world and particularly in this region, the hub of economic development and growth for everybody.

Shortly after the generals staged a coup d’état last month the Thai king came out of a long silence and approved and endorsed the action. The generals took power, cast aside the legitimately elected government, and cracked down on anti-coup and pro Yingluck government demonstrations. For months, they had not intervened against the anti-government demonstrations that disrupted all semblance of economic and social order in the country. De facto the demonstrations and lack of intervention by the army had undermined the government and created the justification for the coup.

The royal endorsement of the military over a democratically elected government clearly means that according to the powers dominating Thailand, such as the generals and the large corporations, the ultimate source of legitimacy does not come from the elections but from the king.

Realistically, it is true that electoral results in many places should be looked at with much caution. A victory by a radical organization like the Muslim Brotherhood in a country like Egypt, with some 40% of the population illiterate, has to be taken with a grain of salt. This is especially true if the ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, starts supporting militant forces against a neighbor, like Israel, in the restive Gaza Strip.

In a way, the overall need to look after peace in the region and the weak basis of the local electoral system can provide justification and legitimacy for a coup against extremist forces.

In other cases, violent activities against an opposing population have led countries astray. When Burmese generals intervened against the democratically elected government in 1988, it condemned the country to pariah status and decades of underdevelopment. The Burmese generals found no legitimacy, internally or externally, for their coup, and let their country wilt away until the recent reforms that are slowly moving Burma in the right direction.

In another example, the violent crackdown against the student movement in China in 1989 prompted Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 southern trip that re-launched reforms. The official narrative and justification legitimizing the crackdown has been that the intervention was crucial to secure the stability necessary for economic development. Therefore, henceforth, economic growth has been the source of legitimization of power for the ruling party of China, to the point that some party echelons argue that democratic elections now could disrupt the process of growth in the country.

One may agree or disagree with the narratives in China and Egypt, but they provide a rational and modern legitimization for a political power that skips the electoral system but delivers results, international peace, and prospects for development of the country. Without a broad rationale, conversely, the path would be that of the old Burmese generals in the 1990s.


+MoreOther Commentary