THAT disasters always befall nations denied democracy and the rule of law is apparent this morning. Thailand was forced to cancel an ASEAN meeting on the weekend because politics is now being played out in the streets instead of parliament. In Fiji, emergency rule is in place as the military government consolidates its power after sacking judges and silencing media criticism. Commodore Frank Bainimarama now leads a government in place on the sole say-so of the country’s president, Josefa Iloilo. The constitution no longer applies. Serving officers are in key public service positions. Judges are sacked, elections are off the agenda for five years and the press is subject to censorship, with police stationed in newsrooms to decide what people are allowed to know. The Sunday edition of the Fiji Times, owned, like The Australian, by News Limited, appeared with white spaces on its front page, where stories the censors did not like were intended to appear.
Fiji was hardly a model of democracy before the weekend. Over the past 20 years, the institutions of civil society have successively been silenced and the country has been bedevilled by ethnic tensions and unseemly scrambles for political power and economic influence as alliances form and dissolve. Soldier Sitiveni Rabuka led two coups in 1987. Civilian George Speight overthrew the government led by the country’s first Indian prime minister, Mahendra Chaudhry, in 2000. Speight was in turn removed by Commodore Bainimarama. While government banker Laisena Qarase was then appointed prime minister, instead of the legitimately elected Mr Chaudhry, the courts at least re-established the constitution. But despite winning two elections, the Qarase government did not please the military and Commodore Bainimarama removed it in 2006. Back then, he said he was acting to end Mr Qarase’s policies favouring ethnic Fijians over people of Indian ancestry. But whatever Commodore Bainimarama’s motives, he declined to give the people an opportunity to endorse or reject his decision in an election. And now he has pushed Fiji further from democracy. With the judiciary dismissed, the media muzzled and the president a friend of the military who has repealed the constitution, it is hard to see how the regime can be stopped from governing however its members choose. The rule of law is now replaced by the writ of Commodore Bainimarama, who urges everybody to be “loyal to Fiji”, but this coup is less about loyalty to the nation than obedience to a regime that apparently prefers to govern without accountability. There is no reason to doubt Commodore Bainimarama believes he is acting in the interests of all Fijians, but governments that cannot be called to account for their actions inevitably become lazy and self-serving. This coup is good for well-connected military men and their associates in the civil service, but it is a disaster for ordinary Fijians of all ethnicities who are now hostage to the decisions of individuals they never elected.
The Thai people are also suffering from the inability of their country’s fractious and fractured elites to work within a parliamentary system. Last December, the People’s Alliance for Democracy occupied prime ministerial offices and blockaded airports, protesting against the People Power Party government they believed was a front for the now exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin is less disliked than loathed by conservative supporters of the military and monarchy, both for the way he built his business empire and for his populist political approach, which is based on an expensive and simplistic program of assisting the rural poor. The problem for the PAD is that whatever Thaksin’s faults, he is immensely popular and would have probably won the next election if he had not been removed in a 2006 coup. The PAD’s solution to the problem of his popularity is a parliament where the majority of members are appointed, but last December’s demonstrations showed the PAD was happy to use economic sabotage to get its way. The mass action worked then, with the courts removing a government of Mr Thaksin’s allies and installing Abhisit Vejjajiva, who is more to PAD’s liking. But Mr Abhisit has a thin parliamentary mandate at best and he survived a no-confidence vote at the end of last month with the votes of just 246 of the 449 MPs. And with the Thai economy in trouble — it is expected to shrink by up to 3 per cent this year — Thaksin’s allies have decided the time is ripe for revenge. Emulating the PAD, protesters are laying siege to the Prime Minister’s offices. On Saturday, they broke through surprisingly feeble police resistance to occupy the hotel where ASEAN leaders where scheduled to meet. It is hard to see how Mr Abhisit can continue after such a humiliating collapse of control on his watch but whatever happens next, the signs are not good for Thailand. Perhaps the army will intervene, perhaps the country’s universally respected king will demand an end to the discord. However, the only solution that will work in the long term is a government that can command a parliamentary majority after fair elections, giving it a mandate that its opponents accept. The tragedy for the Thais is there seems little chance feuding politicians will accept this. The crisis in Thailand is less to do with democracy than it is a faction fight between powerful people pursuing power at any price.
Indonesia’s elections demonstrate it need not be like this. A bare decade since the Suharto dictatorship ended, Indonesians have got the hang of democracy, with some 240 million people eligible to vote in national and provincial legislatures last week. Indonesian elections are not especially sophisticated, with the major parties presenting much the same policies. And with an electorate this large there are inevitable accusations of corruption and incompetence. But what matters most is that the elite of the Suharto era have either adapted to the new culture or withdrawn from the forefront of public life. And the more free elections there are, the greater Indonesia’s chances of tackling systemic corruption as officials realise they are subject to the authority of the people. It is a lesson the powerbrokers of Thailand should accept, a lesson the Fijian military government needs to know. With democracy either abolished or in peril, both countries are starting down the road towards Zimbabwe and other failed states, where people in power govern in only their own interest. The question for leaders in both countries is whether they wish to wear the mantle of Robert Mugabe.