Rising tides: A democratic ethos and populist politics carry the nation forward


Today, Thailand is undergoing its most profound transformation of the last 30 years. The military coup d’é- tat of September 19, 2006 that deposed the populist prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, radically altered the nation’s political dynamic, launching the country into five protracted years of domestic strife and weakened international standing.

However, last year’s peaceful landslide election win by Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s younger sister, has restored much confidence in the country’s democratic process. Thailand’s first female prime minister is now taking pragmatic steps to engage all parties in a concerted dialogue of national reconciliation and to rebuild the nation’s international credentials. At the same time, the kingdom continues to enjoy sustained economic growth largely inviolate from political circumstance, as it has done since the introduction of a constitutional monarchy in 1932 and throughout 80 years of democratisation.

SIAM RESOLUTE: Emerging from the virtual collapse of the Siamese empire following the Burmese pillaging of its historic capital Ayuthuya in 1767 only to then fend off British and French colonial overtures in the 19th century, the Thai nation remains distinctly patriotic and independent.

At the centre of its contemporary political system lies the monarchy, due in part to the astute diplomatic policies of reform and modernisation pursued by King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V, 1853 − 1910), which preserved the then Kingdom of Siam’s sovereignty from European influence. The ceding of some territories to the European powers remains a bitter chapter that still punctuates fringe elements of Thailand’s contemporary political dialogue.

MILITARY CUSTODIANS: Aspirations to reclaim the ceded territories motivated Thailand’s alignment with Japan during the Second World War. This was opposed by the Free Thai Movement, the group that later became the foundation for the principally pro-American governments following the war’s end. Overthrown by a military coup d’état in 1947, military governments soon became the custodians of democracy in Thailand with US support as a pivotal ally in the fight against communism in South-east Asia. Consolidating their role over the next three decades, the military restored the monarchy’s standing after its descent into relative obscurity and self-imposed exile post-1932. Civilian prime ministers held office for just 12 months between 1947 and 1972. Following the successful assimilation of several waves of Chinese immigrants during the 1950s (and overcoming fears of a “red wave”), US economic and military support to Thailand as the war in Vietnam escalated became the catalyst for a fledgling middle class in the 1960s. The rise of this socioeconomic group ignited demands for accountable, representative democracy in the 1970s.

DEMOCRATIC DEMANDS: Student-led demonstrations in 1973 brought about the expulsion of then-prime minister, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn. This was followed by a brief interlude of civilian government until a violent military assault on Thammasat University and a subsequent coup saw a return to military rule from 1976 to 1988. Middle class demands rose again at the turn of the decade, rejecting military rule and precipitating a military crackdown in 1992 that was only ended by King Bhumipol Adulyadej summoning protagonists to the palace for a televised lecture on the need for unity.

Although taking place 16 years apart, 1976 and 1992 were formative years for many of Thailand’s leading political figures and activists. This cadre of leaders flourished in a new era of heightened democratic participation and economic prosperity during the 1990s. The rising tide came to a head with the 1997 “people’s” constitution, which brought ballot voting to both upper and lower houses of parliament for the first time. Yet until the emergence of telecoms magnate Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) (TRT) party in 1998, political movements had been catering primarily to their urban constituencies.

POPULIST AWAKENING: TRT was the first party to actively canvass and engage Thailand’s rural majority as its election platform. Grounded in mainstream populist strategies that particularly appealed to indebted farmers following the Asian financial crisis, Thaksin offered universal access to health care, education, debt alleviation and rural development funds. His subsequent landslide election wins in 2001, 2005 and 2006 continue to set the Thai political agenda today.

By 2005, Thaksin was the first Thai prime minister in the country’s history to serve his full mandated term in office, during which time Thailand, labelled as a “darling of democracy” in South-east Asia, saw continued economic recovery and an expanded role on the global stage. It was tempered, however, by the systematic subverting of activities meant to safeguard democracy and allegations of abuse of power, corruption, human rights violations and even suspicions of plots to usurp the monarchy. Opposition manifested en masse in the yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) movement that took to the streets on the back of largely urban and middle-class popular support. Led by Thaksin’s erstwhile business partner, Sonthi Limthongkul, the PAD’s obstruction of government contributed to Thaksin’s decision to call a snap election in 2006, just three months into his second term. The PAD led opposition parties boycotting the vote, and Thaksin secured 60% of the electoral roll. However, hounded by continued street demonstrations, one-party rule lasted just four months. The nation’s 18th military coup d’état took place on September 19, 2006. As part of its actions, the coup removed Thaksin, who remains in self-imposed exile.

INTERVENTION & STREET POLITICS: The 2006 coup was a response to the political evolutions in Thai society, most notably to the demands for accountable government and accelerating the transition of political control from Bangkok to the masses.

In May 2010 Thailand’s political landscape was punctuated by confrontations between the government, the PAD, the pro-Thaksin red-shirt movement, the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD), which emerged in 2006, and the military. The grievances that arose out of the events between 2005 and May 2010 remain fundamental to the dialogue of reconciliation now under way (see analysis).

However, by December 2008 the power of street politics was already waning. The PAD struggled for relevance as a Democrat Party-led coalition took power following the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of TRT’s successor, the People’s Power Party (PPP). Marginalised by its occupation of national airports and an increasingly far-right-wing message, it never fully recovered its popular base, despite branching into mainstream politics via the New Politics Party (NPP).

Military confrontations in Bangkok with red-shirts in 2009 and 2010 brought an end to the street politics uprisings. The protracted confrontation and deaths of 92 protesters and soldiers in April and May 2010 deeply affected public opinion. At the brink of an open conflict, these events sparked demand for a peaceful solution, expressed in the open and transparent election results of July 2011.

GOVERNMENT: Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy, as stipulated in the 2007 constitution drafted by the military-appointed Constitution Drafting Assembly. It replaces the 1997 constitution, which was abrogated in 2006. Approved by public referendum in 2007, executive power is vested in the government with King Bhumipol Adulyadej as the reigning monarch and head of state. The prime minister is the leader of the largest party or coalition in parliament and is limited to two four-year terms. The leader of the ruling party is required to hold a seat in the lower chamber of parliament, and representatives must relinquish any holdings in major companies prior to assuming a role in office.

The Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, is restricted to 35 ministerial positions, of which 20 are head ministers and 15 are without portfolio, including the deputy prime minister and several other deputy ministers. Members must receive royal approval. The Cabinet is authorised to submit bills to the House of Representatives, the decisions of which are in turn subject to the non-partisan upper house, the Senate.

The lower house is composed of 500 members, of which 375 are elected through single constituency elections and 125 are appointed according to partylist proportional representation. The current speaker of the house is PT’s vice-chairman and former minister of culture and justice, Somsak Kiatsuranont.

The senate is mad up of 150 members who are restricted to one six-year term each. It comprises of 76 senators that are directly elected, one from each province and one from Bangkok. The remaining 74 representatives are appointed by the Senate Selection Committee, composed of the heads of the Constitutional Court, Election Commission, National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), State Audit Commission, Chief Ombudsman, and one judge from both the Supreme Court and the Supreme Administrative Court. The current senate president is General Teeradej Meepien, formerly permanent secretary of the Ministry of Defence and chief ombudsman.

Thailand’s government and bureaucracy remain highly centralised despite calls for increased autonomy and for powers to be handed to local government. Grouped into six regions, broadly defined by historical and ethnic identities, the 76 provincial (changwat) governors are all appointed by the Ministry of Interior, while Bangkok, technically considered Thailand’s 77th province, and Pattaya have elected mayors. The three southern border provinces of Yala, Songkhla and Narathiwat remain under special state-of-emergency decrees enacted in 2004 following the resurgence of a violent Islamist insurgency amongst the majority ethnic Malay population.

LEGAL FRAMEWORK: Three tiers of courts make up Thailand’s judiciary system. The Courts of Justice, composed of the Court of First Instance, the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Justice, or Dika, which is the final level of appeal in matters of criminal law. The Dika is also the forum for prosecutions of politicians, which has placed it at the centre of several anti-corruption cases brought against elected officials in the last six years.

Established by the 1997 constitution, the Constitutional Court is the highest authority on constitutional matters. Strengthened in 2007 as part of the constitutional amendments, its rulings are at the centre of perceived establishment bias following the dissolution of the TRT and PPP parties, while dismissing similar cases against the Democrats in 2010.

Other judicial tiers include: the administrative courts with jurisdiction over conflicts between the state, state organs and private citizens; the courts of trade, tax and labour; and the military courts.

POLITICAL PARTIES: The Pheu Thai (“for Thais”) Party (PT) was founded in 2008 as the successor to both the TRT and pro-Thaksin PPP. Both were dissolved and their executives banned from politics for five years by the Constitutional Court in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Led by incumbent Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, PT has continued TRT and PPP’s populist platform and took 53% of the vote (265 seats) in the 2011 general election. As the dominant force in Thai politics, its electoral base is concentrated among the rural and urban poor, particularly in north and north-east Thailand, as well as Bangkok.

The Democrat Party, led by former prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, makes up the current opposition and Thailand’s oldest political party, although it has not won an electoral plurality in any election since 1992. Maintaining a conservative political position with strong links to the establishment, the Democrats’ electoral support base is concentrated throughout Bangkok and southern Thailand in the middle to upper socioeconomic classes. The Democrats formed a six-party coalition government in 2008 with the alleged tacit backing of the military, replacing the dissolved PPP coalition parties and serving in office until its election defeat in July 2011. Despite a very strong economic performance, the party suffered from uncooperative coalition partners and was confronted by protracted pro-Thaksin street protests in 2010. The subsequent military crackdown on protesters hurt the party, reinforced by an anti-Thaksin election platform, yet it secured 31.8% of votes cast (159 seats).

Led by Newin Chidchob, the Bhumjaithai Party mirrors TRT’s populist platform. Once favoured by the PPP administration, it was later ostracised for “betraying” the pro-Thaksin parties by joining the Democrat coalition in 2008. PT recriminations deliberately campaigned heavily in Bhumjaithai-held seats during the 2011 election, a move which helped halve the party’s expected election yield. While it took 6.8% of the votes (34 seats), it has been kept out in the cold by the PT-led government.

The Chartthaipattana Party replaced the Chart Thai Party that was also banned in 2008. Led by Chumpol Silpa-archa, the party has crossed the parliamentary floor several times in the last decade. First allied with TRT and PPP, it joined the 2008 Democrat coalition before siding with Bhumjaithai in the 2011 elections, only to break ranks and join the PT coalition in July that year. It holds 3.8% of the votes (19 seats).

With just 1.4% of the vote (7 seats) each, Chart Pattana Puea Pandin (CPPP) and Phalang Chon, an offshoot of Bhumjaithai, are minor coalition partners in the PT government. CPPP includes both former TRT members and opponents, following a merger with the Puea Pandin Party in 2011. CPPP is led by Wannarat Channukul, who served as minister of energy in the Democrat coalition and briefly as minister of industry in the current administration.

2011 ELECTION: Since 1992, Thailand has maintained a plurality of political parties that has contributed to a succession of coalition governments. While PT’s 2011 election win constituted a parliamentary majority, its six-party coalition is less indicative of election platform compatibilities than old alliances renewed. However, the election campaign in 2011 highlighted the depth of the Thai political spectrum, with 40 competing parties and an estimated spend of BT39bn ($1.24bn), according to the Kasikorn Research Centre; an 85% rise on the 2007 estimate of BT21bn ($670m). Whereas vote-buying was a common and all-too-apparent stain on the previous electoral process, appearing in charges levelled against TRT and PPP, observers have noted Thailand’s improved performance in terms of monitoring and transparency over the past six years.

NEWCOMERS: The 2011 election was also notable for the emergence of three political parties and movements that defied traditional norms. The New Politics Party (NPP), the PAD’s vehicle to mainstream politics, was founded in 2009, espousing a hard-line nationalistic and royalist ideology, provoking military confrontations with Cambodia. Although wracked by a schism in 2011 over demands by PAD leader Sonthi Limthongkul that it boycott the election, its short-lived political aspirations illustrated the rejection of hardline nationalism by the general Thai electorate.

Diametrically opposed to the NPP, the red-shirt movement also made a point to distance itself from the hard-line and confrontational tactics of 2009 and 2010. With the movement’s UDD leaders abroad or in jail, the movement re-emerged in the form of grassroots “red shirt villages” that espoused demands for socio-economic equality and justice independent of their calls for Thaksin’s return. Whilst distinct from PT, these continue to influence the popular platform on which PT relies, tying them to an unpredictable, but necessary ally in the UDD.

The election also highlighted the question over the moral authority of elected officials. The previous six years brought growing public disenchantment with politicians and leaders across the spectrum. The Rak Thailand Party of former massage parlour king pin, Chuwit Kamolvisit, was the unlikely beneficiary of public ire. Campaigning on an independent, anti-corruption platform, he attracted substantial support from young adults, first-time voters and notable figures among Thailand’s intelligentsia, winning four seats. While a small player, support for the party’s platform, despite its leader’s unconventional background, betrays a growing public unease with Thailand’s political leadership among the new generation of voters.

THAILAND TODAY: PT’s six-party coalition government faced an unforgiving set of circumstances and events in the months immediately after taking power. Foremost amongst its opponents’ concerns and allegations is the belief that Yingluck is a placeholder for her brother. Whilst this claim has been strenuously denied, Thaksin’s frequent consultations with PT advisors and government members in neighbouring countries, openly and documented by local media, have added fuel to the speculations. The real extent of Thaksin’s influence, however, remains unclear, and Yingluck insists that she governs with impartiality.

Facing unshakeable opposition from the private and public sectors to increase the minimum wage to BT300 ($9.57) per day in general and to BT15,000 ($478.50) per month for graduates, derailing key election pledges, Thailand’s worst floods in 60 years abruptly terminated the government’s honeymoon period in October 2011.

By the end of January 2012, 65 provinces had been declared disaster zones. Over 800 people died, with 13.6m more affected, while seven industrial estates and 20,000 sq km of land had been inundated. The government’s response to the national tragedy was slow as it struggled to coordinate between 17 separate agencies and manage the flooding. Its inability to adequately communicate the situation or devise an effective response strategy brought visceral criticism of the government, but little drop in its popularity. In contrast, the military’s deployments, grass roots coordination and resilience of the Thai bureaucracy restored much of the public’s confidence.

SEATING ARRANGEMENT: The January 2012 cabinet reshuffle was partially in response to the floods, although many criticised members retained their seats. In all, 10 new cabinet members were named, including Natthawut Saikua, a red-shirt leader. Appointed as the deputy agriculture and cooperatives minister, Natthawut objects to the prior lack of red-shirt representation. Other important changes included the appointment of Air Chief Marshall Sukumpol Suwanatat as minister of defence, reinforcing civilian oversight of the armed forces, and the removal of the finance minister, Thirachai Phuvanatnaranubala. Replaced by then deputy prime minister and minister of commerce, Kittiratt Na-Ranong, the former secretary-general of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Thirachai publicly condemned his removal as an attempt by the government to manipulate public debt figures, which are now approaching the constitutional limit of 50% of GDP (see Economy chapter).

Such incidences underlined the resistance of many institutions to PT oversight and control, which will continue to plague the government during its term in office. However, May 2012 heralded the return of the first 111 TRT executives from their five-year political moratoriums. Many observers expect a second cabinet reshuffle later in 2012 that will see some of Thaksin’s “A-team” players return to the bench. Yet standing in their way are the current incumbents, a new generation of politicians who are not expected to pass quietly into the night. As the party remains careful not to upset the national balance of power, PT’s own internal politics may prove to be the most effective check and balance in government.

ECONOMIC PRESSURES: Demand for socio-economic equality among the rural and urban masses drives much of Thai politics. This issue remains an important focus to the coveted popular political support base, which has transitioned from a position of “recipient” to “provider” of political support. Accordingly, Thailand has witnessed a flux of competitive populism that has brought many politicians into its fold. However, the proposed Keynesian economic policies would pose substantial fiscal burdens on the state, undermining political stability and increasing dependence on further deficit and borrowing. With depressed export demand, a shortage of labour and a low tax-paying base, Thailand currently has insufficient revenue streams for such political aspirations.

Such populist nurturing is a two-edged sword for Thailand. Debt-laden governments can produce volatile political environments and the commencement of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) in 2015 could yet heighten populist demands. Although the country’s established manufacturing industry has sustained the economy through several downturns, it is feared that Thailand’s current and future labour forces, upstream industrial capabilities, financial institutions and services sector have lost much of their momentum and will lack the necessary competitive edge to compete in the open market that the AEC guarantees.

Just three years ahead of the AEC, this economic imperative may prove to be Thailand’s greatest political challenge. Despite the political instability of recent years, Thailand registered economic growth in every quarter bar six in the 21 months since the coup. That said, the last six years of political conflict squandered Thailand’s lead among the regional economies and deprived it of billions of baht from would-be investors.

OUTLOOK: Following six years of political strife, the 2011 election was a public rejection of violence and extra-constitutional interventions by non-state actors in favour of full, participatory democracy. While Thailand’s political crisis looks to be at an end, grievances remain deeply engrained on all sides of the political spectrum. An ongoing dialogue between the parties is only the first step in a broader programme of national reconciliation that will continue for many years. Thailand’s economy remains on a strong footing, but managing the public debt, investor confidence and the aspirations of its party forerunners may prove to be the PT government’s greatest challenge for 2013.

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