The many colours of Thai revolutions

India’s neighbours are in constant turmoil. Its western neighbour and arch enemy, Pakistan is in complete mess, Nepal in its north is struggling to make democracy work and Sri Lanka, which very recently vanquished the Liberation Tamil Tigers, is on its way to politics of vindictiveness. Thankfully the eastern neighbour Bangladesh is recuperating from the wounds inflicted upon it by the military and Islamist forces.

As if these were not enough, India’s another not-so-near neighbour, Thailand was once again held hostage to the demands of protesters known as Red Shirt movement. The Red Shirts, drawn from rural masses and the urban poor, were demanding new elections, saying they have been disenfranchised by a Bangkok elite backed by the military that is unwilling to share power with the common people. Though they suspended their siege of Bangkok they said they will resume protests next month if their demands were not met.

Thailand is not new to so called colour revolutions. A couple of years back (2008), the Yellow Shirt movement paralysed the country and the agitators were only pacified after their demands were met. The current government is a by-product of that movement. The then government which had roots in the former Thailand Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra had to resign and make way for a minority government.

In similar protests, the Red Shirts, who have been accused of being bankrolled by Shinawatra, laid siege to the country’s main financial and retail district in Bangkok. According to government estimates, the government lost close to $1.5 billion due to the blockades and the protests.

After Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva called in the military, the protesters had to retreat but it only seems to be momentary. Over 50 protesters died in the military crackdown. But they have vowed to come back to continue with their so called democratic struggle. Thailand is a classic example of immature democracy, which has failed to bring in more and more people in the fold of middle class – a healthy situation for democracy.

Thailand’s democratic or street movements should have been good for democracy but instead they have become a tool in destabilising successive governments at the hands of vested interests e.g., oligarchs, big businessmen and military.

Ironically, the Yellow Shirts who lead their agitation as People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), when they came to power, the first thing they did was: They proposed changes to Thailand’s Constitution that would restrict voting rights and have some MPs appointed by interest groups rather than national elections.

Thaksin Shinawatra may be in exile but his involvement in Thai politics has always been as close as one can think of. By bankrolling and remote-controlling street agitations, he may achieve his purpose. But in the end, this may weaken Thailand.

UK polls: Will Lib Dems be the game changers?

‘Labour isn’t working. Britain’s better off with Tories’, this Saatchi and Saatchi advertisement not only made Saatchi famous but also ensured Margaret Thatcher swept the British elections of 1979. The Conservatives remained in power for 18 years until the current Labour government ousted them in 1997.

Fast forward to 2010, 30 years later, we’ve almost a similar situation, at least politically. The Labour has been in power for the last 13 years and Conservatives are once again trying to convince the UK voters that Britain won’t be better off with Labour, interestingly almost similar to 1978 campaign.

After the April 16 televised debate of three major players Conservative’s David Cameron, Labour’s Gordon Brown and Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg (a first-time phenomenon in UK) – however, the table seems to have turned upside down. Conservative party’s rather negative campaign – attacking Labour but hardly committing major reforms for real change – has been upstaged not by beleaguered Labour but the distant third force in UK politics – The Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems).

Nick Clegg edged past the other two top contenders after his impressive debate debut. So from being the third player he’s being touted as the decisive player. The biggest advantage with the Lib Dems is that they are talking of major political reforms like the single transferable vote (STV) system for all UK elections and replacing House of Lords with an elected second chamber as opposed to the first-past-the-post system. While the Labour says it would hold a referendum on adopting the Alternative Vote system, the Tories altogether reject any reform of the voting system.

A PoliticsHome poll in February 2010 suggested 42% of the public would vote to keep first-past-the-post, with 37% backing the alternative vote, though no proportional voting system was included in the poll’s questions.

The TV debate gave the Lib Dems a chance to reach out to millions of voters and to showcase the real alternative as opposed to the Tories’ ‘change’ rhetoric. Naturally, Tory leader Cameron was nervous during the debate, that’s only because he did not have the real alternatives to offer.

Before the debate following were the positions of the three parties:

  • Britain needs stability, says Labour
  • Britain needs change, say the Conservatives
  • Either way, Britain needs us, say the Liberal Democrats

But after the debate, Nick Clegg’s confidence is high and some media pundits even called him the ‘Barack Obama of Britain politics’. He’s now breathing down the neck of Tories after relegating Labour to the third spot.

Clearly perturbed by Lib Dems’ popularity surge, Conservatives leader David Cameron on April 19 warned the voters that voting Lib Dems would mean another bout of ‘big’ Labour government.

Interestingly, Cameron talks of handing power to the people. But I suppose, people vote in anticipation of a government, Mr Cameron!

Mr Clegg, emboldened by the stupendous success of his debate, is talking about a Lib Dems government. He may not form the next government but he has been able to put his agenda before the Labour-fatigued electorate. And one thing has clearly emerged is that Lib Dems are going to be the game changers of these elections.

So, after 13 years of a bleak past, the Labour promises “A Future Fair For All” while the Conservative’s chorus is highly clichéd “Vote For Change”. But when the Lib Dems, who might not win this election say “Change That Works For You”, that makes the maximum impact.

Will elections lead to peace in Sudan?

April 11, 2010, Sunday marked the beginning of elections in Sudan. The voters will decide the fate of the President Omar Al-Bashir – who faces war crime charges at the International Court of justice at the Hague. Elections are also being held for the national parliament, local governors and parliaments and the president of the semiautonomous government of South Sudan.

International media and who’s who of global politics have been keenly watching the elections, as the poll results will have a bearing on the future road to peace in this conflict-ravaged African country.

The three-day-affair elections, which run through Tuesday, are set to be an essential step in a 2005 Peace Accord that ended two decades of civil war between the mostly Muslim north and the Christian-animist rebels in the south. The north-south conflict claimed some 2 million lives.

Sudanese hope the election would begin a process of healing in a country ripped apart by seven-year conflict in the western Darfur region, which has left an estimated 3,00,000 people dead and millions displaced since 2003.

The 2005 peace deal was one of the most remarkable documents on conflict resolution of recent times. The Muslim north led by Al-Bashir and Christian-animist south led by Sudan Peoples Liberation Movement (SPLM) signed on a document to share power as well resources.

Unfortunately, Christian leader John Garang died months after the deal in an air crash. His deputy Salwa Kiir, who succeeded him, however continued with the visions of the departed leader.

The deal granted autonomy to the south and most importantly it gave south the option to become a separate country after a referendum in 2011. President Bashir has said he will accept the referendum result, even if it favours independence for the south.

SPLM has shared power with Mr Bashir’s National Congress Party nationally, while it ran affairs in the south on its own.

Major opposition parties have boycotted the elections. But still, more than 14,000 candidates from 73 different parties are competing. Interestingly, many of Sudan’s 16 million registered voters, especially in the south, had never taken part in multiparty elections before.

Former US President Jimmy Carter, who has been monitoring the polls along with over 800 international observers, said he expected a peaceful election.

In the autonomous Southern Sudan 12 separate elections are taking place – for regional representatives, as well as local and national ones.

Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir voted at a polling station in central Juba – capital of Southern Sudan. Mr Kiir told reporters after voting that it was for the first time that he was voting and he believed that voting would strengthen democracy in his country.

Al-Bashir is a controversial leader who came to power in a 1989 coup but this election is very important for him as he faces the trial. Political analysts say, in the absence of major opposition, he may scrape through in the elections. The SPLM, which withdrew its presidential candidate Yasir Arman, has been accused of striking a deal with Mr Bashir.

The elections in Sudan may be symbolic but its significance is huge in a country with a history of violent conflict.

Interestingly, rebels in the Darfur region are too boycotting the polls that will further help Al-Bashir. But will the elections lead to peace in the country’s western flash point? Only time will tell.

Despite all odds and the shortcomings, let’s hope, Sudan’s tryst with voting and democracy prove to be fruitful and long-lasting. Yes, there might be rigging and misuse of official resources by Bashir but as the former US president Jimmy Carter, who is monitoring the polls, said: “Nothing is perfect.”

These elections are being touted as a prelude to the 2011 referendum, in which south will finally decide, which way to go. A decision to be part of Sudan is unlikely and a decision to part with might end up in another conflict, as the country’s oil fields lie along the north-south border and the division of resources would be a tough task.