Giles Ji Ungpakorn
A recent book by Alfredo Saad-Filho & Lecio Morais titled “Brazil: Neoliberalism versus Democracy”, describes how the Brazilian elite conspired with the middle-classes and right-wing politicians to destroy the Workers’ Party (PT) government and its pro-poor policies.
The events in Brazil have a similarity with the destruction of democracy in Thailand.
Obviously the events in Brazil and Thailand are not the same. For a start, the PT was a social democratic party with roots in the trade union movement and Lula, their first president was a former metal worker and trade unionist. Taksin Shinawat is a big business tycoon and his party was not in any way social democratic nor allied to the working class.
Lula’s PT government, which came to power in 2002, continued to pursue neo-liberal policies which the previous right-wing government had used. Lula had toned down his social democratic policies and built an alliance with national capitalists in order to look respectable. However, the PT needed to reach out to its base among workers and the poor, who were suffering from the effects of neo-liberalism. So when Lula was re-elected in 2007 the government started to use what Saad-Filho & Morais refer to as “Developmental Neoliberalism”. This policy did not abandon neo-liberalism but added to it the role of the state in creating an economic atmosphere beneficial to national private capital. Developmental Neoliberalism also accepted that economic growth could not be sustained unless such growth was reconciled with tackling social inequality. This was the policy which was also used by Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff.
After the 1996-7 Thai economic crisis, which was a symptom of extreme neo-liberal policies in the past, Taksin Shinawat’s party proposed a “dual track” economic policy, combining neo-liberalism with “grass-roots Keynesianism”. This used state funds to raise living standards of the poor and bring in a universal health care system.
Workers’ Party governments in Brazil were lucky because when “Developmental Neoliberalism” was introduced, the Brazilian economy entered a period of rapid growth due to rising prices of raw materials which Brazil exported to China. Increased state revenues were successfully used to fund pro-poor schemes involving health, education, housing, and attempts to eradicate poverty. This caused discontent among the elites and the middle-classes who resented such state policies which they saw as giving “hand-outs” to the undeserving poor. Accusations of corruption were levelled at PT political leaders.
The Thai elites and middle-classes also resented Taksin’s pro-poor policies for similar reasons. The elites also felt that they were unable to compete electorally with Taksin’s mass base.
“Anti-Corruption” is a useful political weapon for the middle-classes because it is difficult to oppose and can be a vague cover for attacking political opponents while ignoring the real underlying class issues. “Corruption” can also be conflated with pro-poor policies and this is what happened in both Brazil and Thailand.
Corruption, both of the legal and illegal variety, is part and parcel of capitalism and mainstream politics throughout the world. Attempts by the PT to become more “respectable” by dropping radical ideas, meant that they decided to do corrupt deals with right-wing politicians and local businesses. The rise of less political PT politicians who emphasised their administrative capabilities, also encouraged corruption. But Saad-Filho & Morais claim with good reason that there is so far little evidence to prove that either Lula or Dilma Rousseff were directly guilty of corruption.
Despite some of Taksin’s odious policies, especially in the field of human rights, and his tax avoidance manoeuvres, there has been little evidence that he was directly guilty of corruption.
In Brazil and Thailand, charges of corruption have been selectively used, ignoring the behaviour of opposition party politicians and the military.
The neo-liberals in Brazil and Thailand also complained about pro-poor policies being against “fiscal discipline”, although in the Thai case, huge military and royal budgets are never subjected to the same complaints.
The PT’s “Developmental Neoliberalism” in Brazil went off the rails after the 2008 world economic crisis and the drastic fall in raw material prices. Cuts were made to pro-poor policies under Dilma Rousseff. This alienated the PT’s base among the poor and was a golden opportunity for the right-wing and middle-classes to overthrow her government and impeach her. A Judicial-Senate coup took place. What was interesting was that Dilma Rousseff was actually removed, not for corruption, but for not adhering to “fiscal discipline”. This is exactly the same excuse used to punish Taksin’s sister, ex-Prime Minister Yingluk Shinawat, in the Rice Price scheme.
After the over-throw of PT and Taksin allied governments, the regimes which replaced them in Brazil and Thailand turned back towards extreme neo-liberal policies.
The comparison between Brazil and Thailand reinforces the class and political economic reasons for the destruction of democracy in Thailand. Conspiratorial theories about the role of the Thai monarchy in destroying democracy explain nothing.
Further reading on Thailand: “What Led to the Destruction of Thai Democracy?” https://bit.ly/2cGAi1E
“Thailand’s Crisis and the Struggle for Democracy” https://bit.ly/1TdKKYs