Thai authoritarianism: past and present

Thai authoritarianism: past and present

Thailand’s political pendulum has swung wildly. It has now completed a dramatic reversal, pitting the electoral authoritarianism of Thaksin Shinawatra from the early 2000s against the thinly veiled dictatorship of General Prayuth Chan-ocha in the mid-2010s.

An army officer stands guard at the Democracy Monument. The military junta faces high public expectations for a return to normalcy. KRIT PROMSAKA NA SAKOLNAKORN

These two sides of the authoritarian coin represent Thailand’s painful learning curve. The most daunting challenge for Thailand’s medium-term outlook is not to end up with one or the other, but to come up with a hybrid, combining electoral sources of legitimacy for democratic rule and some measure of moral authority and integrity that have been found wanting among elected officials.

A long view is necessary to come to terms with Thailand’s long crisis. One portrait is a contentious rise of government by a few to a pluralistic rule by many, an era of mass politics in the 21st century that is no longer dictated by traditional power brokers but at the same time is susceptible to abuse and manipulation by newly vested power holders.

It is a story of Thai democracy that dates back a century, perhaps to the 1912 rebellion by young army officers against feudal absolutism. Democratic rule cannot be denied but it will be resisted as long as a new balance is not found to bridge the old order and new power arrangements. The more recent period is part and parcel of this story.

A decade ago, Thaksin was riding high. He had earlier squeaked through an assets concealment trial on an 8-to-7 vote after nearly winning a majority in the January 2001 election, the first under Thailand’s highly touted 1997 constitution. A consummate politician and former police officer, who hailed from a new capitalist group that exploited a giddy stock market to great wealth with an expansive telecommunications conglomerate, Thaksin enjoyed extensive networks in business and bureaucracy, including the police and army.

In politics, his Thai Rak Thai Party became a juggernaut. Its architects came up with a popular policy platform that featured affordable universal healthcare, debt relief and microcredit schemes. It won over most of the upcountry electorate and even the majority of Bangkok at the time. Thai Rak Thai also absorbed smaller parties and virtually monopolised party politics in view of a weak opposition.

Thaksin penetrated and captured what were designed as independent agencies to promote accountability, particularly the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. His confidants and loyalists found their way into steering these agencies. His cousin at one point became the army commander-in-chief. His police cohorts naturally were fast-tracked to senior positions, including his brother-in-law, who skipped the queue and lined up to be national police chief.

And Thaksin’s business allies and associated partners secured plum concessions and choice government procurement projects. He was on course to be the first prime minister to complete a four-year term. After his landslide victory in February 2005, including the capture of 32 out of 37 MP seats in Bangkok, Thaksin also became the first prime minister to be re-elected and to preside over a one-party government. His virtual monopoly of Thai politics and the attendant hubris inevitably got the better of him. His approach of making a lucrative business out of politics, of cultivating Thailand Incorporated for the Shinawatra Corporation, led to his demise in the September 2006 military coup. Thaksin’s rule was democratic on paper but authoritarian in practice.

The Thaksin legacy is strong. His subsequent proxy governments from the ballot box, led by Samak Sundaravej and Somchai Wongsawat in 2008 and Yingluck Shinawatra and Niwatthamrong Bunsongpaisarn in 2011-14, were repeatedly hobbled by anti-Thaksin street protests and never had a chance of lasting a full term. When Ms Yingluck survived past the midway mark and looked poised to complete her term, Thaksin’s Pheu Thai Party came up with a blanket amnesty bill that upended her government, assisted by the same independent agencies that earlier supported Thaksin but turned against him after the 2006 coup. The putsch on May 22 was merely the knock-out blow to an ineffectual administration.

Now the pendulum is at the other authoritarian end. Gen Prayuth now spearheads an outright authoritarian regime with no democratic pretences, ruling with absolute power. His is and will be a military government on paper and in practice during the interim period, a reinvented military dictatorship for the 21st century. The tone and texture of the May 22 coup that was led by Gen Prayuth made it a foregone conclusion that the military would dominate politics, epitomised by the chief coup-maker himself becoming prime minister. This was an all-in coup, not like the half-baked putsch in 2006 that some pro-coup columns see as having been “wasted”.

Gen Prayuth’s coup allies, under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), are now poised to take up key portfolios and become the stewards of the Thai economy, society and internal security. The structure of power under the NCPO is clear. After seizing power, the regime rolled out an interim constitution after two months and appointed a National Legislative Assembly (NLA) soon thereafter. The NLA is filled not with business cronies and spouses of politicians like the Thaksin period but with military classmates and siblings. In turn, the NLA chose Gen Prayuth as prime minister. The prime minister will then select his cabinet, which is likely to be mostly military and include only a clutch of technocrat types. The National Reform Council (NRC) will later come into place, leading to a constitution-drafting committee, which will be nominated by the NRC, the NLA, the cabinet and the NCPO.

The NCPO is thus the nexus of this interim governing structure, comprising the NLA, the cabinet, and the NRC. Without ballot-box legitimacy, this monopoly of power is reminiscent of the Thaksin juggernaut a decade ago. It was a parliamentary dictatorship then as it is now. But the fundamental difference is that the current authoritarian period completely bypasses the electorate.

And as Thaksin enjoyed immense personal popularity then, Gen Prayuth does so now. His Friday addresses to the nation have so far been fluid and to the point, hitting appealing tones. The regime’s anti-corruption campaign has struck popular chords in a country that is beset with ubiquitous dark influences. The junta would certainly score more points if it dared to aim at higher-hanging corruption schemes and concessions, not just the low-hanging fruits like extortion rackets that run motorcycle taxis, the teenage racing gangs roaming the streets at night, and illegal public parking. One salient demonstration would be to undo and redo big fishy concessions like airport duty-free.

Gen Prayuth and the military also benefit from low-base effects. After policy paralysis during the six months of anti-government street protests, the coup had to be a relief. Everyone had to put up and make do with the coup at minimum in the initial period because there was no alternative in the face of continuing martial law. Reality will start to bite as the military government starts its day-to-day work. The next 14 or so months of the NCPO’s timetable to return to democratic rule may be long and hard.

Just like the Thaksin regime from its heady days, the NCPO may turn out to disappoint and disillusion its supporters. It has set the bar high. Many are now expecting that the junta-led regime, with Gen Prayuth as prime minister, will be benevolent and enlightened, delivering policy results that will get the economy moving, repairing Thai democracy for the better and tackling existing corruption without adding on new corruption.

It is a tall order. Those who spoke out against the political monster the Thaksin regime eventually became must now be wary of the potential leviathan the military government could become. No matter how it is rationalised, unaccountable power with absolute authority and direct control is a recipe for disaster.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

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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