Democracy Lab

The Thai Malaise

The current political standoff in Thailand is a symptom of deeper problems that can't be solved by watering down democratic process.

On Feb. 2, the day of Thailand's general election, untouched ballot boxes were laid out like rows of gravestones in Bangkok's Rajathewi district office, while more than 100 self-proclaimed pro-democracy protestors, many of them middle-aged women from southern provinces hundreds of miles away, blew whistles and cheered. They were celebrating their success in preventing the voting from taking place. Shortly after 8:30 a.m., they rose up en masse and left the government compound, padlocking the gates on their way out. Outside they held a party on the main street, which they had closed for the occasion. The Royal Thai Police were nowhere to be seen, and a small group of soldiers stood passively by, snapping the padlocking ritual on their iPhones.

Back in November, the opposition Democrat Party demanded the dissolution of parliament and fresh elections, but once Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra -- who still had 18 months of her term left -- called a snap election for Feb. 2, it soon became clear that the Democrats were refusing to play ball.

The Democrats, Thailand's oldest political party, have transformed themselves into the kind of protest movement their leaders had always professed to despise. Not only did the party boycott the election, but it also backed moves to disrupt the polls by the People's Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) (an anti-government protest movement led by former Democrat Secretary-General and Deputy Premier Suthep Thueksuban), which announced plans to shut down Bangkok from Jan. 13 on, blocking key intersections across the city. Protesters continue to hold the city hostage. Most recently, on the morning on Feb. 18, three protesters were shot and 64 injured as police attempted to break up the demonstration.

After preventing advance polling across much of Bangkok and the south on Jan. 26 -- during which one protest leader was shot dead -- protestors followed a prominent Buddhist monk into a violent altercation with pro-government groups in the Bangkok district of Lak Si on Feb. 1. Soon after the election, the Democrats announced that they were bringing legal action against the Yingluck government for pressing ahead with an "illegitimate" election. For the Democrats, any election won by parties linked to the demonized former premier Thaksin Shinawatra was inherently illegitimate, however convincing the margin of victory.

Meanwhile, media outlets sympathetic to the opposition, including the respected Bangkok Post, ran articles suggesting, without any apparent irony, that the relatively low turnout and the high number of "no" votes (in Thai elections, voters can tick a box saying they reject all the candidates on the ballot) proved that the ruling party had performed poorly. The opposition's approach was: "Let's do everything we can to sabotage the election, including using violence, and then blame the ruling party for making a hash of it."

Voter turnout for the Feb. 2 general election was just under 48 percent overall (compared to 75 percent in the 2011 election), not bad considering that voting was virtually impossible in several southern provinces where the opposition was able to shut down the electoral process. The controversial military-backed referendum to approve the 2007 constitution secured a comparable turnout of just under 57 percent. Overall, nearly 75 percent of those who voted in 2014 supported the government. Split ballots and "no" votes were up compared to the most recent elections.

As Thailand's leading political blogger, Bangkok Pundit, noted, a more useful comparison might be to the 2006 snap election called under similar circumstances by Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, during his time as prime minister. Democrats boycotted the 2006 poll as well, but actively campaigned for a "no" vote. As a result, nearly a third voted "no" -- compared to the mere 17 percent that did in 2014. There is no solid basis for assuming that most of those who failed to vote, or who cast "no" votes, in a boycotted and violently disrupted general election, were people who would otherwise have voted for the Democrat Party -- though some were certainly disappointed by lackluster local members of parliament from the ruling party.

What the Feb. 2 elections most clearly illustrate is the growing political chasm that separates greater Bangkok and the country's south from its less affluent but more populous regions in the north and northeast. The latter have long been strongholds of support for Yingluck and Thaksin, who was elected largely because of his appeals to urbanized villagers, Thais with rural origins who dream of making it to middle-class standards of living. Because of Thailand's hidden "caste system" -- which is linked to popular Buddhist notions that the poor deserve their lower status because of accumulated demerits from previous lives -- Bangkokians typically have a profoundly paternalistic view of the masses. Thaksin's populist, can-do message, the stuff of self-help books, resonated deeply with many voters in the north and northeast. The leaders of the current anti-government protests -- many of whom come from Bangkok -- constantly deride these voters as ignorant and susceptible to electoral manipulation and vote-buying. Worse still, these anti-government protesters accuse pro-Thaksin voters of disloyalty to the Thai nation and the monarchy. On Jan. 26, I heard one rally speaker declare that those who had taken part in advance voting did not really love Thailand, and were probably in fact Cambodians casting fake ballots.

How did Thailand reach this sorry state of affairs? Pro-Thaksin parties have won six successive general elections since 2001, while the opposition Democrats have failed to win a convincing election victory in almost 30 years. The conservative establishment, comprising the Democrats, the military, the network monarchy, and the judiciary, have made numerous failed attempts to drive a stake through the heart of this controversial politician: a military coup, election annulment, party dissolution (twice), and criminal conviction on corruption-related charges. Because he faces a two-year jail term, Thaksin has not set foot in Thailand for nearly six years, yet he remains the single most important non-royal Thai by far. If you just listen to the vitriolic, nauseating rhetoric at the nightly anti-government rallies at multiple locations around Bangkok, you would think Thaksin and his sister were the country's biggest political problems. In fact, Thailand faces two huge parallel challenges, neither of which is of Thaksin's making:

The first challenge is national anxiety about the country's future. Rama 9, King Bhumibol, the world's longest serving monarch, is now 86 years old. Who will succeed him, and what will happen as a result, is the focus of endless gossip among Thais. A lot of the protestors' anti-Thaksin sentiment reflects their view that the influential former premier must not have any hand in managing the delicate succession process.

The second challenge, seen in attempts to disrupt voting in Bangkok and elsewhere, concerns the logic of electoral politics. Now that voters in the north and northeast have been mobilized to vote as a bloc, the Bangkok middle classes and their southern allies face the real prospect that they will never again choose a government to their liking. Thailand has moved into a phase of majoritarianism, in which pro-Thaksin governments will be able to run the country with virtual impunity for the foreseeable future. Affluent Bangkokians have finally grasped the logic of electoral democracy: they are permanently outnumbered by the rural masses.

The PDRC is right about one thing: reform is urgently needed in Thailand to reduce political partisanship and break the constant cycle of mass protests. But any reform process that moves away from popular voting -- towards some Hong Kong-style electoral system based on occupational groups, for example, as is apparently implied by the PDRC's loose talk of a "people's assembly" -- will only exacerbate the country's class tensions. Reform means dismantling the informal caste system, reducing psychological dependence on the monarchy, and growing an appreciation for the capacity of the rural population to contribute to their democracy. The latest general election, though a partial boost for the Yingluck administration, has also failed to deflate the protests. Thailand already has liberty in abundance, and a fair bit of fraternity. Creating more equality is the next step.

Rufus Cox/Getty Images


Icebergs Ahead

The interim nuclear deal with Iran was huge -- but a permanent solution is going to be much, much harder to reach.

The temporary deal to halt or roll back parts of Iran's nuclear program in return for modest sanctions relief is an impressive, if perishable, success for U.S.-led diplomacy. But the negotiations among Iran, the United States, and five other world powers to find a comprehensive solution on Iran's nuclear program, which begin Feb. 18 in Vienna, will face far greater challenges. The six months allowed for negotiations by the interim agreement might not be enough to overcome Iran's hardliners and sway skeptics on Capitol Hill, all while maintaining the unity of the countries involved in talks: the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, and Germany (also known as the P-5+1).

"We don't in any way underestimate how difficult the comprehensive solution will be," said a senior U.S. official. Gary Samore, a Harvard researcher and the top White House nonproliferation expert until last year, similarly said in an interview, "The chances of negotiating a comprehensive solution, particularly in the next six months, are very low." President Obama himself has conceded that the odds of a successful outcome are not more than "50-50." On the eve of the negotiations, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who publicly supports them, said, "I am not optimistic about the talks, and they will reach nowhere."

"The [Obama] administration is prepared for that possibility," said Robert Einhorn, a Brookings Institution scholar who served as the State Department special advisor for nonproliferation until last May. "It has pretty definite standards for what constitutes a good agreement." The obstacles to a permanent deal come in many forms.

Tough Terms and Strict Verification. Obama's negotiators are not revealing their opening positions for the talks, but there are strong indications they will seek the permanent shutdown of most of Iran's nuclear activities, paired with unprecedented inspections and other verification steps. The Iranians publicly reject the suggestion that key parts of their program might be terminated.

"Our goal," said one senior U.S. official, "is to have a very long timeline from a decision to actually being able to make enough enriched uranium for a weapon." Negotiators had been taken aback by how lax Iranian interpretations of some mandates in the interim deal were when they initially discussed implementation, and many more such mandates would undoubtedly flow from a permanent agreement. The impending demands could well induce a case of sticker shock in Tehran, which portrays its atomic work as an international right and source of national pride.

U.S. officials say they have not acceded to Iran's "right" to enrich, but they and their partners acknowledge that Iran might be allowed to do limited nuclear fuel work. The Joint Plan of Action, as the interim deal is known, says vaguely that Iran's future uranium enrichment will fall within "mutually agreed parameters consistent with practical needs." Exactly what that means will be the subject of hard bargaining. It is too soon to know whether Iran would agree to concentrate uranium enrichment in one location -- the aboveground plant at Natanz -- and close its underground Fordo site. The questions of how much enrichment can continue, the size of uranium stockpiles, and the curbs on upgrading centrifuge technology will all be argued at length. Iran's heavy-water reactor at Arak, which U.S. policymakers see as a second path to a nuclear-weapons capacity, via plutonium, has long been a stumbling block. It is also a target for closure, which Iran has previously refused to consider.

U.S. officials carried on "extensive discussions" with outside experts over several months late last year about what a comprehensive deal should look like, said David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). ISIS subsequently issued a report contending that Iran should not retain more than 4,000 centrifuges, meaning 15,000 would have to be removed. That would leave a minimum "breakout time" of six months. Asked last month by CNN whether any centrifuges could be destroyed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said simply, "No, no, not at all."

The duration of an accord will also be contentious. Iran has publicly spoken of three to five years -- and, in private, of up to ten, but is hesitant to concede so much. U.S. officials have informally discussed 20 years of tight restraints, which would inevitably shrink Iran's pool of nuclear scientists and technicians. Such a span of time would also give credence to Iran's assertion that its aims are peaceful, and possibly restore international confidence that has been sapped by Iran's past concealment of nuclear sites and its non-compliance with reporting required in safeguards agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, and with resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.

Then there's the question of persuading Iran to accept intrusive monitoring on a scale it has never experienced. For the temporary deal, the IAEA is doubling its inspectors in Iran and opening a field office there. Negotiators for a permanent deal are almost certain to demand more intense inspections and greater use of cameras and other checks in facilities for fabricating nuclear fuel and machinery, for conducting research and development (R&D), and for mining and milling uranium.

Future verification, U.S. officials have said, would also entail investigating Iran's earlier nuclear operations, including any with military dimensions. According to ISIS, a permenant agreement must seek to identify the origin and amounts of raw materials and parts, as well as imports and exports. IAEA inspectors for years have wanted to scrutinize alleged weapons work at Iran's Parchin military base, from which they have been barred. Iran is suspected of having tested triggers there capable of an implosion-type nuclear detonation.

Iran's stonewalling on such unresolved issues has stymied the IAEA from compiling a full narrative of its nuclear program. "Some questions from the past have implications for the future," said Einhorn, adding, "Governments aren't very good at confessing past sins."

Iranian Politics. Much of what the Iranian regime can or cannot do to seek a deal is shaped by bitter domestic divisions. The reformist Rouhani has a mandate for making compromises to reach a comprehensive deal. Iranians, tired of years of U.S. and international sanctions, gave negotiators returning to Tehran after signing the interim deal a roaring welcome in the streets. Khamenei has spoken of showing "heroic leniency" -- flexibility -- toward the West on the nuclear dispute. The interim deal could not have happened without his nod.

But Rouhani and his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, are in a delicate position: They are trying to ease Iran's economic squeeze while not tempting hard-liners to launch a full-on challenge on the nuclear diplomacy and other issues. The conservatives, still smarting from their defeat by Rouhani in elections last June, control the military, security services, and judiciary. There are divisions among them on how far concessions by Rouhani and Zarif can go.

Khamenei is presiding over these opposing political camps, and he seems well positioned for either the talks' success (taking some credit) or failure (blaming the West or allowing Rouhani and Zarif to own the disappointment).

As for Rouhani, he vowed "serious will" to settle the nuclear dispute in his January speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But he also warned that Iran will neither abandon peaceful nuclear technology nor "accept any obstacles to its scientific progress."

Such remarks need to be read with the expectation that both sides will start the talks with maximalist positions. Much of the talk from Tehran will be intended primarily for domestic ears. "We shouldn't pay too much heed to rhetoric at home in Iran. That's what they need to say to sell any deal," reasons a European official who is knowledgeable on the negotiations.

American Politics. Similarly, Obama is bound by political fights at home. Any long-term nuclear deal with Iran will have to run a political gauntlet on Capitol Hill, where mistrust of Iran has only grown ever since the 1979 U.S. Embassy hostage crisis following Iran's revolution. "Moving toward a final agreement, the internal politics of the United States will be critical," said the European official.

A warning flare of sorts has gone up in the form of an Iran sanctions bill introduced by Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) after the interim deal was reached. For now, the administration has gotten a reprieve. White House opposition has peeled off some Senate Democratic support. Menendez changed course on Feb. 6 and asked that no vote take place for now. An influential lobby supporting the bill, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, did likewise.

The episode nonetheless is a reminder of political uncertainties on the American side of the nuclear talks.

Fifty-nine senators have signed on as sponsors of the bill, which backers term a "diplomatic insurance policy" to strengthen Washington's hand in negotiations. It would create a framework for new sanctions -- which could be temporarily waived by the president -- unless Iran met certain conditions, including on non-nuclear issues like terrorism and missile tests. It also calls on the United States to support Israel if it strikes Iranian nuclear sites in "legitimate self-defense." Einhorn calls some of its provisions "poison pills."

The proposal ran head-on into the White House strategy to wall off the nuclear talks from the other disputes with Iran, which have inspired their own sanctions. The interim deal bars new nuclear-related sanctions on Iran during its six months in force. Administration officials charged that new sanctions would derail the talks and, as one put it, "undermine the sanctions regime that we have built so meticulously over the course of the last several years." Similarly, Zarif told journalist Robin Wright that talks are "dead" if new sanctions materialize. Obama, who is said to be more engaged in internal Iran discussions than he has been in the nuclear dispute with North Korea, vowed to veto the bill if it reaches him.

Current and former officials insist that ample leverage with Iran already exists. "Iran is still facing crippling sanctions. Iran already has a tremendous incentive to negotiate seriously," said Einhorn.

Yet the lead U.S. negotiator in the Iran talks, Wendy Sherman, assured edgy senators on Feb. 4, "We have made it clear to Iran that, if it fails to live up to its commitments, or if we are unable to reach agreement on a comprehensive solution, we would ask the Congress to ramp up new sanctions." No doubt, the administration could get them. Both Republicans and Democrats who are wary of the Iran talks will be watching for them to break down -- and create a new opening to act.

P-5+1 Unity. Holding together the six countries that are bargaining with Iran will require constant attention. Russia and China were reluctant converts to sanctioning Iran for its intransigence, and they would probably accept looser nuclear restrictions on Iran than others in the group. Some European states -- with stronger trade and cultural ties to Iran than the United States has -- found the oil embargo and the severing of most financial dealings with Iran painful. "There may be differences about how to deal with the Iranians," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association.

Risks to P-5+1 concord have already emerged, as European and Russian executives flock to Tehran to get in line for business opportunities if nuclear sanctions end. More than 100 French executives came to Iran in early February -- the most high-ranking private-sector group to visit since the 1979 revolution. The White House reacted sharply to Russian discussions with Iran about a goods-for-oil swap, saying it would violate sanctions laws and the interim agreement. Russia's Lukoil is also talking with Iran about returning if sanctions are lifted, though no deals have been announced.

U.S. policymakers, meanwhile, have maintained chorus-like synchronicity in insisting that "Iran is not open for business." In the United States, according to a spokesman at the Treasury Department, "We have not seen a surge of new license requests for business involving Iran."

The Treasury Department official in charge of Iran sanctions, David S. Cohen, recently traveled to Austria, Italy, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates with the message that the general array of Iran sanctions stays in place, the current relaxation is reversible, and enforcement remains aggressive. On Feb. 6, the Treasury Department slapped penalties on nearly three dozen companies and individuals in Europe and the Middle East for allegedly assisting Iran on nuclear or missile supplies or support for terrorism. With France's president by his side on Feb. 11, Obama said of firms violating sanctions laws, "We will come down on them like a ton of bricks."

European governments are also watching for sanctions erosion. "We can't prevent European companies from going to Tehran and prospecting for new business," explained the European official. "But we don't want to signal to parties that sanctions are being chipped away.... The unity represented by the P-5+1 is quite remarkable."

Remarkable, yes, but reaching a comprehensive solution this year would rank as a marvel of modern diplomacy -- and not only because it would mean the P-5+1 hadn't fractured. In Iran, the United States, and elsewhere, skeptics are poised to jump in if they think too much is being conceded. "These negotiations take place in a fishbowl. There are people looking to rip this whole thing apart," cautions Kimball. It would be surprising if the private dialogue between Tehran and Washington that was used prior to the interim deal is not resumed.

Considering all the obstacles, six months look like a pretty pinched timeframe to nail down a permanent deal. Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign-policy chief, has already raised the possibility of extending the interim deal if the talks require more time. That deal allows for a six-month add-on if the participating countries in the talks agree -- which would push the negotiating period to January of next year. Such deferrals would not sit well on Capitol Hill. Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) worries about "a series of rolling, interim deals" during which the United States and its partners will "lose all leverage."

In the end, though, the biggest unknown is simply whether Iran's leadership will accept a tight leash around its atomic ambitions. And doubts are in order. "All these issues are very difficult one by one, but collectively they reflect the more fundamental difference in national interests at play here," said Samore. "Iran wants to achieve a nuclear-weapons option, and we want to deny it that."