Thailand's semi-democracy returns

Thailand's semi-democracy returns


The appointment of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha as privy councillor has neatly bookended Thai politics over the past decade. It coincides with the 10-year anniversary of the street demonstrations that were led by the People's Democratic Reform Committee, paving the way for Gen Prayut to stage a military coup in May 2014. While the interim was a period of hard and soft military-authoritarian rule in 2014-19 and 2019-23, the new moving balance in Thai politics is a semi-democracy of sorts under the Pheu Thai Party-led coalition government.

To be sure, the big news about Gen Prayut's new status is a bang and a dud at the same time. Many are unsurprised and see it as par for the course, whereas others took note of his elevation from chief coup-maker and self-appointed prime minister to privy councillor. This loud news item has become the quiet talk of the town.

Thai-language social media is abuzz with observations that five of 30 Thai prime ministers to date have been appointed to the privy council, and seven of the current 19 privy councillors have derived from the May 2014 coup period.

Gen Prayut's roles are perceived as part of a grand bargain that has brought back Thaksin Shinawatra from self-exile with a royal pardon and the formation of a Pheu Thai-led government headed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin. This perceived bargain took two decades to come full circle.

It began in the early 2000s when Thaksin led a massively popular and democratically elected government that ushered in wide-ranging structural reforms and policy innovations, putting Thailand on the map as a regional player. In hindsight, the Thai Rak Thai Party-led government in 2003 was roughly Thailand's peak in its global standing. Peak Thailand ended up as a threat to the established centres of power, which collectively ousted Thaksin in the September 2006 military takeover.

Along with his policy successes were Thaksin's conflicts of interest and cronyism. But the corruption and collusion which justified his overthrow never went away. They just changed hands, depending on who was able to wield power. The resilience and transcendental popularity of Thaksin and his proxies, including his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, who became prime minister from 2011-14, meant that his adversaries had to roll out the tanks a second time to get rid of his clique for good.

The next seismic change agent after Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai and its successor banners was the Move Forward Party, which won the election last May. As is well known, Move Forward's reform agenda is considered the new threat by the same established centres of power. A new bargain thus had to be found to marginalise and neutralise Move Forward and its core leaders, instigating constitutional and legal charges to pin them down while sorting out a new deal with Thaksin and other Pheu Thai leaders.

Accordingly, we have the Srettha-led coalition government. Its semi-democratic nature appears similar to but is different from that of Gen Prem Tinsulanonda in 1980-88. The civil-military compromise back then was premised on Gen Prem taking the premiership as army commander-in-chief with prerogatives over interior, defence and finance among cabinet portfolios, while elected politicians were allocated other line ministries. Polls took place in 1979, 1983, 1986, and 1988. Despite coup attempts in 1981 and 1985 by an anti-Prem faction in the military, the bargain held up under prevailing circumstances and laid the groundwork for Thailand's manufacturing-based, first-generation economic growth strategy.

This time, the Srettha government should be considered semi-democratic on two counts. First, the traditional institutions that have called the ultimate shots have endorsed this outcome. For example, the two main pro-military columns from the 2014 coup, the Palang Pracharath Party and the United Thai Nation Party, are coalition partners. The same goes for the Bhumjaithai Party, which is openly pro-establishment. These three parties can be considered strict guardians of the interests of the military and monarchy.

Apart from its military backing, the Pheu Thai-led government is also the second-best democratic outcome after the last election. The first-best democratically elected government should be led by Move Forward as the biggest vote winner with its flamboyant and charismatic leader, Pita Limjaroenrat. Had the Move Forward-Pheu Thai alliance been allowed to take office, it would have been the most democratically legitimate and popular government since Thai Rak Thai won overwhelmingly in the February 2005 poll.

But for Thailand, a second-best outcome as a semi-democracy is still far better than what it had to endure under Gen Prayut's near-decade at the helm when the Thai economy went nowhere while political repression went up. At last, Thailand has a civilian leader again who is pro-business with an awareness of and interest in how the world works, intent on getting the economy moving and restoring the country's international standing and regional role in Asean.

Mr Srettha still has a lot of convincing to do. Pheu Thai's growth strategy appears inchoate and piecemeal. Its signature 10,000-baht digital wallet scheme for some 50 million Thais to boost domestic consumption remains controversial and limited in its intended multiplier effects. Its planned "land bridge" in the southern region linking the Pacific and Indian oceans to attract commerce is headed by a cabinet minister who was embroiled in scandals from two decades ago, particularly the shady procurement of CTX scanners for Suvarnabhumi airport.

Its "soft power" idea does not seem well conceptualised and defined. Its free-trade agreements to promote exports and institute structural reforms have yet to start bringing stakeholders and vested interests together to do the vital homework of making trade-offs and adjustments.

To settle for the Srettha government as a second best, it is necessary to compare it not with what Mr Pita's could have been but to what Gen Prayut's was when it ran up record-breaking public debt while running the economy to the ground with social divisions and its lowest-ever international standing.

Mr Srettha should be given a chance because Thailand's return to democratic rule and international renewal is fragile and precarious.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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