Can we have 'Premocracy 2.0' in the 2010s?

Can we have 'Premocracy 2.0' in the 2010s?

As preparations are under way for Thailand's second-ever referendum on Aug 7, the completed draft constitution will now be dissected and digested in myriad ways, although public reactions and views will be constrained by the military-backed authorities. Because of a lack of public input and feedback for what is supposed to be a charter for the Thai people, tensions will likely mount ahead of the referendum, marked by the military government's escalating repression.

From initial scrutiny of the draft charter, it is clear enough that the military wants to retain power over the long term in what can be likened to "Premocracy 2.0". At issue is whether a military-civilian compromise and accommodation that functioned well in the 1980s can work similarly more than three decades on.

Thai politics during 1980-88 was widely seen as "semi-democratic". Gen Prem Tinsulanonda began his long premiership in March 1980 as the army chief and unelected prime minister, with firm army backing. Over the course of his stable semi-democratic rule, Gen Prem presided over five coalition governments and three elections, in 1983, 1986 and 1988. After the latter election, he called it quits and soon thereafter joined the Privy Council, eventually rising to be its president. The Prem era was an arrangement whereby elected politicians and political parties could contest polls and divide up line ministries. Gen Prem, however, retained control of the defence, interior and finance portfolios.

The current draft constitution has vested so much power and authority in a 250-member military-controlled Senate that the upper chamber will be poised to lord it over the next elected government if the charter passes the referendum. Accompanying charter mechanisms will also empower independent agencies, such as the Constitutional Court, to keep any elected government weak and fractious and allow an unelected military figure or proxy to become prime minister if the scattered lower house cannot agree on one of its MPs taking the post.

The Senate's term is to last five years, part of a junta-sponsored reform drive that is to go on for 20 years. And six chiefs of the security forces -- army, navy, defence, police, supreme commander, and defence ministry permanent secretary -- are to be ex-officio senators so as to pre-empt future military coups, as a junta leader recently suggested. Indeed, the Thai state is going through a spectacularly chilling militarisation that is supposed to usher in reforms that the Thai people ostensibly need because they are not informed enough to come up with their own and their elected representatives are too corrupt to do it for them.

In truth, what the National Council for Peace and Order wants is more than the Premocracy of the 1980s. Back then, Gen Prem was astute in maintaining control over military factions and overseeing a workable arrangement with elected politicians by sharing power with them. Gen Prem was also smart to delegate macroeconomic management to technocrats and protected them when they faced the ire of elected politicians, as was the case with the November 1984 devaluation. Equally important was Gen Prem's proven clean record, untainted by corruption scandals unlike prior military strongmen and elected politicians.

According to the draft constitution, the NCPO is willing to share power with elected politicians after stacking the rules overwhelmingly in its favour. But unlike the Prem period, the NCPO appears less interested in delegating macroeconomic management to experts who know what to do. Gen Prem never pretended to have an enlightened vision of where Thailand needed to go and gave full authority to technocrats to run the economy as they saw fit. The current lot of ruling generals want to take Thailand somewhere and they want to do it by themselves. The few experts they have around have some authority at the margins but the generals hold ultimate control over the macro-economy, as security and order trump growth and prosperity.

The draft charter depicts the Thai military's role as closer to the long and repressive military-authoritarian period during 1947-1973. Back then, in the fog of the Cold War, two competing military cliques alternately ran Thailand like a military dictatorship. But like Gen Prem, they deployed and insulated technocrats to look after the macro-economy. They did not try to tackle everything from politics and society to economy and development on their own.

Thailand's interim period after the May 2014 coup has thus become indefinite. What is indefinite may soon be structurally embedded and entrenched for the long term. Much of what will happen depends on whether the charter is rejected in the referendum.

The ousted Pheu Thai Party has already come out directly against the draft constitution, calling for its rejection. Pheu Thai's call is natural but remains characteristically divisive and polarising because of the long shadow cast over it by Thaksin Shinawatra and his clan. Moreover, Pheu Thai activists and Thaksin's lieutenants will be suppressed if they agitate and mobilise.

In a pathetic turn of events, Thai democracy may have to be saved in the near term by the people who have done so much to undermine it. The Democrat Party has yet to make a stand. With its wide-ranging network and supporters, the Democrat Party may decide against the draft charter if they see that the military is in it for the generals more than the Thai people, thereby heightening the chances that the charter will fail in the referendum despite official intimation and coercion to the contrary.

If so, what happens thereafter is murky but Thailand has to cross one bridge at a time at this stage. Until a third way emerges with viable alternative forces that can lead the country beyond the Thaksin machinery, away from the Democrat Party of the past and above the current military, the only hope of keeping long-term military dominance over the Thai people at bay rests with civilian forces that used to know a thing or two about overthrowing military dictatorships.

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

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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