Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 12 May 2014  

Challenges of democracy with social equity 

The ouster of the Thai premier and elections in India and South Africa show the challenges for developing countries in combining democratic governance with social equity and development.


There are many countries currently embroiled or engaged in issues of national governance, and each case brings its own lessons.

One interesting theme is whether the practice of governance and democracy can go hand in hand with tackling inequalities and delivering on development.

Top of last week’s political events was the removal of Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra from her post by the country’s Constitutional Court.

Many may have been surprised that an elected Prime Minister can be removed by a court for the reason that she and nine ministers in 2011 had wrongly transferred the national security chief to a post as an advisor to the prime minister.

The security chief was replaced by the national police chief, whose post was later given to a brother-in-law of Thaksin Shinawatra.  Thaksin is the brother of Yingluck, a former premier overthrown by a military coup in 2006 and now in exile.

These changes in personnel positions were deemed to be an abuse of power serious enough that Yingluck and the nine ministers have to quit their leading government posts.

Abuse of power is surely a serious charge.  However in the scale of abuses practiced by political leaders past and present in many countries, the transfer of a senior official which may benefit a family member may not rank as an outstanding malpractice in the view of many people.

If the strict standards of this court are applied universally, heads of government and Ministers in many countries would lose their jobs.

What the massive demonstrations over six months calling for Yingluck’s removal could not do, the court succeeded in doing.  Her opponents celebrated, while her supporters accused the court of judicial overreach and judicial coup.

The court decision, and a corruption indictment against Yingluck over large subsidies given to rice farmers, are the latest milestones of the decade-old political struggle between the Thaksin-Yingluck camp and a largely urban establishment elite.

The titanic battle is played out in various forms, including the 2006 coup against Thaksin, two national elections in 2007 and 2011 (which Thaksin-linked  parties won), massive street protests by supporters and opponents of Thaksin and his sister, and constitutional court cases (which have removed three premiers, all Thaksin supporters).

Many analysts believe the political fight is between representatives of the urban-based traditional elite which feel threatened by Thaksin, and poor rural farmers in some provinces that the Thaksin camp won over through income-raising policies and supports.

Yingluck’s ouster has triggered more intense turbulence.  There is no end in sight to the crisis.

In India, the weeks-long ballot casting in the national elections will finally end this week, and there is high expectation bordering on certainty, that a new coalition of parties will replace the present alliance led by the Congress party.

What that new configuration will be is still anyone’s guess.  The party with the most seats will negotiate with an array of regional-based and other parties to make up a parliamentary majority.

The new government has to confront the complexities and imbalances of this huge and diverse country.  On one hand, the high overall economic growth of past decades has given rise to a sizable rich and middle class, which provides the market base for a globalised consumer society.

Because India’s population is so huge, the upper and middle classes constitute a large number in global terms, even if it is only 10 or 20 per cent of the national total.

There are wide disparities between the well-off and a majority in rural communities and urban slums that remain poor.  Even though India has made considerable progress in reducing poverty, the number of people who are still poor is large.  The challenges of designing and implementing national and local policies to cater to them are tremendous.

Reconciling the demands of the upper and middle classes with the need to channel national resources and orient the economy to meet the livelihood and income needs of the poor, will be a major task for the new government, one made more difficult by the economic problems facing India in light of the global economic slowdown.

In South Africa, the African National Congress last week won the national elections for the fifth time, with a large majority.

The ANC was riding on its Mandela-led glorious history of successfully fighting apartheid and of being champions of black empowerment since it took power in 1994. 

There have been considerable achievements, in democratic governance, ethnic tolerance, improvement in the political position of the blacks, and reasonable economic performance over the years, but also charges of corruption, shortfalls in social services and new economic problems.

Like India, the global slowdown has affected the country’s growth and increased its vulnerabilities.  Overall unemployment is high at 25%.  One in seven adults has HIV. 

Many social imbalances caused by apartheid still remain to be solved, including the need to redistribute land to poor black farmers.

Many parties that led their countries to independence have faced a similar situation.  After benefitting from the legacy of the heroic fight against colonialism, the governments are now expected to deliver development, and people become more restless after some time elapsed.

It is the same for South Africa.  After its resounding fifth victory at the polls, the government faces the challenge of continuing to empower the majority, while reducing inequalities and delivering development.