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Thailand’s first elections in the post-Bhumibol era

Thailand’s 2019 general elections will be the first since the passing of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, on 13 October 2016. Concomitantly, they will be the first elections in Thailand not held under political conditions of royal hegemony and the Bhumibol consensus since 14 October 1973, when the late king intervened in support of students and civilians protesting against the dictatorship of Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. October 1973 crystallised Bhumibol’s popularity and his quasi-divine status as the protector of the people, culminating the reinvigoration of the monarchy’s presence in public life that was promoted under the rule of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat throughout the 1960s.

Under Bhumibol’s populist-guided democratic reign, Thailand saw 40 long years of royal hegemony (here, hegemony is used to mean leadership by consent and non-coercive compliance a la Antonio Gramsci). The effect was to bind the development of Thailand’s democratic system and the monarchical institution in, as described since the 1978 constitution, “a democratic regime of government with the king as head of state” (ระบอบประชาธิปไตยอันมีพระมหากษัตริย์ทรงเป็นประมุข). Under such a regime, the reforms that can be initiated via democratic process, particularly the potential for fundamental, radical change, are reined in and hinge on the approval and initiative of the monarchy. Under conditions of royal hegemony, political, economic and cultural change was tempered by the following characteristics of governance : (1) Governance primarily involved participation by and benefited elites, rather than common people. (2) The distribution of power and benefits was hierarchical-cum-clientelist, rather than egalitarian. (3) Rather than democratic, governance became authoritarian with a moralistic and technocratic inclination. Expressed in the terms of those who espouse it, that authoritarian governance represented “Thai-style modernity”—a conservative, cautious approach to reform.

Yet the inevitably corporeal and impermanent agency of monarchy meant that not even royal hegemony could endure forever. This inevitability was not lost on the monarchical network, which prepared for the post-Bhumibol scenario as early as the politically reformative constitution of 1997. In place of Bhumibol’s charisma, the institution of the Constitutional Court was established to function as a surrogate king, whose supreme judicial authority under the constitution was supposed to maintain the legitimacy of the democratic regime of government with the king as head of state.

What nobody predicted were the cumulative effects of the Tom Yum Goong Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 and the 1997 Constitution. The intent of the constitution was to “close off corruption, open up efficiency, and strengthen leadership”, especially the authority of those in peak governance positions—the prime minister and leaders of large political parties. The method to do so was a party-list, proportional representation electoral system under which the entire country was a single constituency for 100 seats in the House of Representatives (the remaining 400 were elected through a first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies). The result was the rise to power of Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Shinawatra and his pluto-populism.

Politically, the Thaksin regime represented a wholesale recalibration of electoral competition and structures of political power. Provincial-boss dominated, clientelistic politics evolved into party-dominated, policy-based politics led by a populist leader. Economically, the Thaksin regime overturned a system of distributing benefits amongst various elite factions based on competitive clientelism, whereby political leaders in mutually-beneficial arrangements with prominent capitalists competed in rent-seeking. In its place, a system of monopolistic clientelism emerged. Thaksin and those close to him in Thai Rak Thai monopolised political power, and the privileged economic connections and control over rent that came with it. It may be said now that the democratic regime of government with the king as head of state was not designed to support the co-existence of two populist leaders. One came into being by royal birthright and the other through democratic elections, but both claimed to speak in the name of the nation. In the end, one had to give way unceremoniously to the other.

It is worth mentioning that the coup on 19 September 2006, which took place a month before general elections were scheduled, was led by a junta that deliberately called itself, if translated literally, the Council for Administrative Reform Under a Democratic Regime of Government with the King as Head of State (the junta later clarified its English name to be the Council for Democratic Reform, before changing this to the Council for National Security). The significance of the name lies in its hinting that the Council desired political and administrative reform of some kind. Such reform was not, however, to involve fundamental regime change but rather was to be enacted under the framework of the democratic regime of government with the king as head of state. Revealingly, this indicated that balance between the two central components of the regime—the democratic system and the monarchical institution—had been lost under Thaksin’s government, to the point that electoral results had become a threat to royal hegemony. Reform would be necessary to tame the democratic system.

In this context, the ambitions of the Council for National Security (CNS) were always to bring about a return to the political and economic arrangements that existed under royal hegemony before the rise of Thaksin. This same goal was shared by the so-called “judicial review” activism spearheaded by the Constitution Court in the aftermath of the April 2006 elections, whereby, among other interventions, the Court annulled the electoral victory of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party and dissolved the party in 2007. A return to royal hegemony was also desired by royal-nationalistic movements, whether it be the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) from 2005–09 or the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) from 2013–14.

Against this background of unravelling royal hegemony, what are we to make of the political turmoil of the past 12 years (2006–18) ? During that period, Thailand has seen 8 prime ministers (including 2 who have been acting prime ministers) and 2 coups : by the CNS on 19 September 2006 and by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) on 22 May 2014. Mass movements in opposition to alternating governments-in-office have come in 7 waves, led by : the PAD in 2006, the Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship (DAAD) in 2007 ; the PAD in 2008 ; the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD) in 2009 ; the UDD in 2010 ; the Pitak Siam Group in 2012 ; and the PDRC from 2013–14. Crackdowns on protest on 4 occasions (2008, 2009, 2010 and 2013–14) cumulatively led to the deaths of hundreds, the injuring of thousands, and several hundred billions of Baht in economic loss. Last but far from least, the country has seen four constitutions (an interim constitution in 2006, a new constitution in 2007, an interim constitution in 2014, a new constitution in 2017). Has all this unrest been part and parcel of the growing pains involved in transitioning to democracy ? I do not think so.

Substantively, all of the above has been imbricated instead in elite efforts to transition to a stable and enduring non-democracy with the king as head of state. The essence of this project is the reduction of elections to window-dressing. Ideally, institutions in which office depends on the outcome of elections or which draw their authority from an electoral mandate—including the legislative assembly and the executive government—are subsumed under the control of constitutionally-safeguarded institutions whose composition are unelected. These include the Electoral Commission of Thailand, the Senate, the National Strategy Committee, the Constitutional Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The difference between past and ongoing efforts to install non-democracy lie only in where they intended to redirect power from democratic institutions. For example, the draft constitution of 2015, overseen by Borwornsak Uwanno as president of the drafting committee, intended to vest decision-making power in “moral and good people” from non-governmental organisations. Meanwhile, the 2017 Constitution, of which Meechai Ruchuphan headed the drafting committee, is designed to vest powers that once lay with democratic institutions in the hands of judicial authorities—even as the NCPO desires to vest those powers in the Armed Forces.

Political change from the general elections next year will then likely be limited to only a transition from closed to electoral authoritarianism. Electoral legitimacy, especially in the eyes of Western countries, will distinguish the regime that emerges from the elections from the closed authoritarianism of the NCPO. That legitimacy, however, will come hand-in-hand with democratic uncertainty. The NCPO has sought to mitigate the contingency involved in democratic competition through the 2017 Constitution, especially in its provisional clauses (one which, for instance, stipulates that all 250 members of the senate will be chosen in the final stage by the NCPO). The constitution also sets out an electoral system that advantages the NCPO and the parties that support the continuation of military rule, at the expense of large parties such as Pheu Thai. In particular, the new mixed-member apportionment system removes the separate vote for party-list seats, replacing it with a single vote for a candidate. The effect in both the electoral process and parliament will be to further undermine the political importance and representative strength of parties against the military and bureaucratic elite.

After the elections, it is probable that Thailand will be nominally governed by a coalition government of weak, medium-sized parties led by an unelected prime minister who did not earn a seat in the House of Representatives. That government will operate under the constrictive oversight of unelected, constitutionally-enshrined institutions, which will largely be constituted by high-ranking military officials, senior or retired bureaucrats and prominent businessmen, all appointed by the NCPO or the parties associated with it. The substance of electoral competition will tend to regress back to provincial-boss dominated, clientelistic politics once again.

Some have argued that the electoral-authoritarian regime will look something like a return to semi-democracy under the premiership of General Prem Tinsulanonda from 1980–88. Much like the current constitution, the 1978 constitution allowed for an unelected prime minister and established a bicameral National Assembly constituted by an elected legislature but an appointed senate. Nevertheless, the military-guided semi-authoritarianism that is likely to emerge from the 2019 elections will be distinct from the model of Premocracy. Under Prem’s premiership, parliamentary structures represented substantive power-sharing between elected and unelected office-holders. As Prajak Kongkirati observes, “The power-sharing mode of the 1978 constitution reflected the army’s willingness to compromise and adapt to the changing political environment, which saw the rise of business classes who demanded participation in state affairs”. The trajectory inaugurated under General Prayuth is distinct in the establishment of several institutions via the constitution whose membership are unelected, and which are poised to act as external checks on parliament. These institutions were never seen under Prem’s premiership, indicating a turn after the 2019 elections towards authoritarianism rather than power-sharing.

What about a return to bureaucratic polity, as during the era of Sarit Thanarat, who from 1959–63 consolidated dictatorship by rationalising cohesive military–civilian bureaucratic structures ? The NCPO has struggled to coordinate the highest centres of power in the state bureaucracy, which has historically already been plagued by problems of internal unity. Several contemporary factors have exacerbated the Thai state’s bureaucratic dysfunction. First, the NCPO’s rule coincides with the transition from a long-standing generation of senior officials to a less-qualified generation. Second, the strictness of new regulations against corruption have had the effect of discouraging initiative, flexibility and the enthusiasm of bureaucrats. Third, political conflict and extreme division between yellow shirts rallied against Thaksin and red shirts rallied in support of Thaksin has spilled into and wrought havoc upon the bureaucratic system. As rival sides alternated in controlling the government, each purged the bureaucracy of those allied with the opposition, taking turns to “clean up” the bureaucracy again and again. This has been especially true of military governments which have tended to exercise arbitrary powers, circumventing usual legislative process, standing rules and regulations. The uncertainty of bureaucratic life is demotivating, producing a hesitant, fractured system far removed from the Sarit era.

Finally, what will be the legacy of the NCPO’s rule upon the military–monarchy pact that is at the heart of the network monarchy ? Under Rama IX, the head of the privy council operated as an intermediary between the two institutions, with the network marked by the dominance of the monarchy over the military. Some analysts have predicted a reversal in this arrangement, whereby the military will ascend to the position of dominance. Such evaluations may be premature, as the balance of power between the two institutions has yet to settle clearly. Though the new king may not possess charisma comparable to his father’s, he is clearly leveraging the law to expand royal prerogatives, both through his demand for specific amendments to the constitution and in his assumption of direct control over institutions related to the Bureau of the Royal Household, especially the Crown Property Bureau and the expanded Royal Guard Command.

The NCPO’s ambitious project to install non-democracy faces formidable obstacles, most notably rapidly-changing socio-economic conditions, a lethargic state bureaucracy and the dispiritedness affecting ordinary people in an era bereft of royal hegemony. It may be said that the Bhumibol Consensus no longer exists with enough stability and effectiveness to ensure the junta’s efforts to establish a non-democratic regime of government with the king as head of state.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.