What protesters in Ukraine and Thailand are getting wrong

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The political crises in both Ukraine and Thailand took a turn for the severe last week, as government police forces clashed with protesters with even greater violence.  But what do the protesters want in each country — and can the protests, even if successful, bring stability?  Ukraine Flag Iconthailand

Amnesty: the root cause of the Thai protests

In Thailand, a country of 66.8 million people, anti-government protesters took to the streets in November (pictured above, top) after Thai president Yingluck Shinawatra tried to introduce an amnesty bill that would absolve both her supporters and opposition leaders from the worst charges, including murder, that spring from the political violence that’s engulfed Thailand sporadically throughout the last decade.  The bill died in the Ratthasapha (National Assembly of Thailand, รัฐสภา) after all sides turned against it.  Yingluck’s party, the dominant Pheu Thai Party (PTP, ‘For Thais’ Party, พรรคเพื่อไทย), the third iteration of the party Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, founded in 2001 when he came to power, didn’t want to absolve the sins of their adversaries.  The opposition Phak Prachathipat (Democrat Party, พรรคประชาธิปัตย์) opposed the amnesty bill because they feared it would mean the return of Thaksin from seven years in self-exile.

Though Yingluck won the July 2011 parliamentary elections on a promise to de-escalate tensions in Thailand, the amnesty has brought the country back to the familiar standoff between the pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ and the anti-Thaksin ‘yellow shirts.’ 

EU relations: the root cause of the Ukrainian ‘Euromaidan’ protests

In Ukraine, a country of 45.5 million people, pro-European protesters also took their grievances to the streets in late November (pictured above, bottom) after president Viktor Yanukovych pulled out of an association agreement that would have engendered closer cooperation between the European Union and Ukraine.  Initially, the protests, centered on Maidan Square in the capital city of Kiev, assumed the form of the familiar political struggle between the Europe-oriented, Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russia-oriented, Russian-speaking east, which featured prominently in the 2004 ‘orange revolution’ against fraudulent elections that powered Viktor Yushchenko to power.

Yushchenko ended his presidential term massively unpopular, with his pro-Western allies fracturing into various camps, and in the February 2010 presidential race, the pendulum swung back to the pro-Russian Yanukovych, who defeated the EU-friendly former prime minister Yuila Tymoshenko (by 2010, a Yushchenko ally-turned-foe).  For much, much more background, here’s Max Fisher’s explainer today at The Washington Post.

In both cases, the protests have transcended their original rationales, and they now threaten to topple governments in both Kiev and Bangkok. What’s more, Yingluck and Yanukovych haven’t responded incredibly well to the protests.

Yingluck’s response


With her opponents demanding her resignation and the installation of an unelected, technocratic governing council, Yingluck (pictured above) instead dissolved the Thai parliament in December and called early elections set to take place this Sunday, February 2.  Given the state of current Thai politics, however, Yingluck and the PTP are all but certain to win those elections because their voter base in northern and northeastern Thailand (and among Thailand’s rural poor) can outpower the Democrats’ base in southern Thailand and Bangkok (and among Thailand’s wealthy, royalist elite).

The Democrats, still hoping for an unelected governing council, boycotted the elections instead, taking a page from the disastrous January elections in Bangladesh, which went ahead despite an opposition boycott and international condemnation.  Those elections resulted in a predictable landslide victory for the increasingly authoritarian prime minister Sheikh Hasina, but Bangladesh still hasn’t found its way out of its own electoral impasse between Hasina and her longtime rival, former prime minister Khaleda Zia.

When Thailand’s electoral commission recommended postponing the vote for the sake of reducing violence and bloodshed, Yingluck’s government refused and has instead deployed up to 10,000 police to protect Sunday’s vote.  Yingluck announced a state of emergency last week, but so far held back in using emergency powers to disperse the protests.  Ominously, the Thai government promises to crack down on protesters, who have occupied government buildings throughout Bangkok, on February 3, the day after the election.  There’s still a chance for a negotiated settlement after leaders from both sides meet Friday, but that seems doubtful after Suthin Tharathin, a protest leader, was shot to death last weekend in the middle of giving a speech.

Yanukovych’s response


If Yingluck’s reaction to protests in Thailand has been perhaps misguided, Yanukovych’s response has been more malfeasant.

From the outset, there have been plenty of clues that Yanukovych (pictured above) disrespects both Ukrainian democracy and the rule of law.  When protesters demanded a re-run of the October/November 2004 presidential election due to fraud, Yanukovych was the presidential candidate who benefitted from that fraud.  Upon taking office in  2010, Yanukovych’s government promptly imprisoned Tymoshenko on trumped-up charges related to the agreement she struck as prime minister in 2009 with Russia over Ukraine’s import of natural gas.  Given Yanukovych’s close ties to the Kremlin and his reluctance to renegotiate the natural gas contract, it’s hard not to agree with EU and international observers that Tymoshenko is a political prisoner.

Prior to the October 2012 parliamentary elections, Yanukovych changed the rules governing the election of legislators in the 450-member Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), Ukraine’s unicameral parliament.  Instead of electing all seats on the basis of proportional representation, Yanukovych introduced plurality-vote single-member constituencies for half of the seats — largely to boost his own Party of Regions (Партія регіонів) at the divided opposition’s expense.

Since the protests began, Yanukovych has only fed the worst fears of his critics in passing an anti-protest law on January 16 that repressed media law and freedom of assembly, which inflamed public sentiment further and caused the protests to spread into eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych’s base, and more ominously, caused the protests to spiral into violent riots.  In so doing, he’s learning the same lesson that Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan learned last year in the aftermath of the Taksim Square / Gezi Park protests — that robust democratic institutions have more components than a vote once every four or five years.

This week, Yanukovych is backing away from confrontation by repealing the protest package and inviting key opposition leaders to take a role in government.  Yanukovych’s long-serving prime minister Mykola Azarov resigned earlier this week, giving the protesters a significant victory.

The Western media has responded to both political crises with more alarm than aplomb — the Economist suggests that, despite over a decade of political tension, Thailand is now suddenly at risk of splitting into two countries.  Other media outlets have been quick to highlight a speech by Ukraine’s first post-Soviet president Leonid Kravchuk (who quickly lost power in 1994 to the more long-lived presidency of Leonid Kuchma, Yanukovych’s mentor) yesterday suggesting that Ukraine is on the brink of civil war.

But the conflicts at the heart of both protests have decades-long roots — it’s not as easy as assigning a ‘color’ to a new exotic ‘revolution.’  The struggles in Ukraine, Thailand and elsewhere aren’t black and white or otherwise subject to lazy color-wheel analysis — they aren’t orange or rose or saffron or green or cedar or tulip, either. 

The problem with the protesters

At first glance, Yingluck’s decision to call snap elections shouldn’t seem objectionable to her opponents.  After all, instead of clinging onto power for another year, Yingluck instead referred the current political crisis to the decision of the electorate.

The refusal of the Democrats to accept snap elections belies their own mistrust of electoral politics in Thailand.  If they’re right that Yingluck should resign, why not campaign to win the mandate of the Thai people?  Instead, the Democrats haven’t effectively built a winning coalition in over two decades, and they haven’t expanded their base beyond their core supporters among the Bangkok and southern elite.  Until they do so, Yingluck (or Thaksin) and their allies will continue to control Thailand’s government.

It’s no secret that the Democrats are actively hoping for the Thai military to intervene, as they’ve done multiple times before — most recently, in 2011, the military installed Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as Thailand’s prime minister.  It’s as if the Republican Party in the United States realizes that it must appeal beyond its base of older, Southern, white and male voters, but instead of engaging in the hard political work, hopes that the US military will just intervene on its behalf in domestic politics.

Despite the military’s historical sympathy with the Democrats (they’re known as ‘pineapples’ — green on the outside, but yellow on the inside), there are plenty of ‘watermelons’ in the armed forces these days too (green outside, red inside).  This time around, army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha vows that the military won’t intervene politically — or at all, so long as violence doesn’t spiral out of control. Having looked around the world Egypt, cough>, Prayuth and Thailand’s army brass must realize that military coups don’t necessarily result in greater economic stability or political credibility that the elected governments they replace.  Though protests against former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in June 2013 rivaled the Tahrir Square ‘revolution’ that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in January 2011 (and perhaps with very good reason), Morsi had a mandate from a democratic election that made his ouster much more objectionable.

The Ukrainian protesters aren’t blameless either, and there’s evidence that some of the more violent agitators aren’t pro-European activists, but hard-right nationalists who have needlessly antagonized the police and security forces, escalating the crisis for their own purposes.  It’s a force that’s on the rise in Ukraine — in 2012 elections, the ultranationalist All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” (Всеукраїнське об’єднання «Свобода») won 10.42% and 37 seats, a significant gain for the xenophobic right.

Of course, Ukrainians should be entitled to register their discontent with Yanukovych’s EU decision without meeting police bullets and brutality — for the same reason citizens in Brazil were entitled to protest a rise in the price of public transport and other woes last summer.  The government of president Dilma Rousseff responded with concrete measures, and she’s now favored for reelection later this year.

For good measure, Yanukovych could do much more.  In order to demonstrate his good faith, he could announce an unconditional amnesty, release Tymoshenko from prison and offer a bona-fide hand to the opposition to form a unity government to succeed the Azarov government.  

But the anti-Yanukovych opposition began to fragment almost immediately after it won the December 2004 presidential election under Yushchenko.  For example, in the 2012 parliamentary elections, Tymoshenko’s center-right ‘All Ukrainian Union — Fatherland’ party (Всеукраїнське об’єднання “Батьківщина, Batkivshchyna) competed with heavyweight boxing champion Vitaliy Klychko‘s new reformist Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (Український демократичний альянс за реформи).  Though the two groups worked together in many electoral districts to prevent vote-splitting, Yanukovych’s election law gambit worked, and his governing Party of Regions outpaced the opposition in the first-past-the-post constituencies by a much wider margin than the more narrow proportional representation vote.  If the opposition cannot agree a unity candidate among Klychko, Tymoshenko, Fatherland’s current leader Oleksandr Turchynov or, perhaps, former foreign minister and economy minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Fatherland’s parliamentary floor leader, it could weaken its chances in the February 2015 presidential election when Yanukovych is still expected to vie for reelection.

Overthrowing elected governments will solve problems in neither country 

If the Democrats have their way in Thailand, they will have protested, occupied, cajoled and disrupted their way to yet another military coup.  To what end?  To create more economic uncertainty? to destabilize what little democratic tradition exists in Thailand? To scare away the few, brave foreign investors who have returned to Thailand after the violence and political upheaval between 2006 and 2011? To perhaps, one day, fracture the country even more into a poor, rice-producing north and a ‘tiger’ industrialized south?

Yingluck may not be the world’s model democrat, nor may her policies win praise from economists (her rice subsidies in 2011 backfired by sharply reducing Thailand’s rice exports).  But a prime minister with a questionable mandate is certainly better than the chaos of a military junta with no mandate, and Yingluck’s government made small gains toward stability over the past three years.

Likewise, if the protesters manage to force Yanukovych out, they’ll have undermined Ukraine’s democratic institutions, and they’ll have done nothing to break the political conflict between Ukraine’s east and Ukraine’s west.  What’s more, there’s no guarantee that either camp has the answers to Ukraine’s economic woes, regional imbalances in economic performance and, worst of all, crippling depopulation — Ukraine has lost 12.5%  of its population since independence.

By demanding regime change outside of the electoral process, the protests actually encourage the idea that Ukraine is a pawn in the greater geopolitical struggle between Russia and the European Union over the former Soviet states.  It encourages Russian president Vladimir Putin to withhold a crucial $15 billion bailout agreed in December 2013 (or, potentially, cut off supplies of natural gas to Ukraine in future) on the condition that the next Ukrainian government is ‘acceptable’ to Moscow.

The majority of the country supported Yanukovych in 2010 and, arguably, even during the 2012 elections, despite the changes to electoral law.  Pushing Yanukovych out today would not only undermine those elections further, it would undermine future elections, no matter who wins them.

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