Use + Remix

There was hope after Thailand’s election that this would be a 'liberal moment' for the nation but those hopes have been dashed.

Pita Limjaroenrat’s suspension after his election win could open the door for  the return of exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra : Michael Joiner, 360info CCBY4.0 Pita Limjaroenrat’s suspension after his election win could open the door for the return of exiled former PM Thaksin Shinawatra : Michael Joiner, 360info CCBY4.0

There was hope after Thailand’s election that this would be a ‘liberal moment’ for the nation but those hopes have been dashed.

Hopes for any kind of reformist government taking power in Thailand are fading fast.

On 19 July, Phum Jai Thai, a conservative party with the third largest bloc of seats, announced it would not support the PM candidate chosen by Pheu Thai (the party with second most seats) if it remains in a coalition with the Move Forward Party which won the most seats at May’s election.

The coalition was already in trouble after the Constitutional Court announced it would investigate Move Forward leader and Prime Ministerial hopeful Pita Limjaroenrat about shares he inherited in a non-functioning media company, which saw him immediately suspended as an MP.

These moves have probably put unendurable pressure on the ‘democracy’ coalition of eight, formed after the May elections.

Many of the Pheu Thai party members may well be eyeing up the greener pastures of government, rather than the reformist policies of Move Forward, and may not be concerned about the criticism they’ll receive for entering into coalition with proxy parties for the military.

A week earlier, the unelected Senate blocked Limjaroenrat’s bid to become PM. This was in spite of his party winning the most seats of any and his heading of a coalition commanding 313 seats in a house of representatives of 500.

Once again, democratic dreams in Thailand die a slow death.

There was such hope after the 14 May election that this would be a ‘liberal moment’ for Thailand and indeed Southeast Asia.

A fresh-faced, liberal and intelligent prime ministerial candidate caught the imagination of Thai people, tired of rule by grumpy generals.

They voted for his party in droves, but now he looks set to be neutralised by Thailand’s conservative courts. Just as Thanatorn Juangroongruangkit channelled the hopes of Thailand’s youth in 2019 and was subsequently barred from politics in January 2020.

Perhaps it is time for observers to tackle the unappetising question: “What is the point of elections in Thailand?”

In the wake of the Cold War, Thailand experienced its longest ever period of democracy, 14 years from 1992-2006. But since then, the goalposts for an elected government have continued to move, making it harder for them to survive.

The government of Thaksin Shinawatra achieved a landslide victory in 2005, on the back of unprecedented policies that acknowledged Thailand’s underprivileged and rural sectors.

But Thaksin’s meddling with military promotions ruffled feathers. More importantly, his demagogic standing unnerved those invested in the monarchy remaining Thailand’s most important institution.

Despite Thaksin’s removal and exile after the 2006 coup, leaders of his party were felled one by one, twice after important election wins: Samak Sunderavej in 2008, Somchai Wongsawat in 2008, and finally Yingluck Shinawatra in 2014 via a coup.

These three had neither the standing to compete with the monarchy, nor the temerity to interfere with the military, but nonetheless they were removed through means other than elections.

There have been 13 coups, 20 constitutions and rule by the military or its proxy parties for seven out of every 10 years since 1932, when Thailand ended its absolute monarchy.

That is not to say there has been no progress. Outright military dictatorships remain rare, Thailand’s level of democratic participation has increased, and through the tenure of parties like Thaksin’s the yardsticks of what good policy looks like have shifted in such a way that some things like free health care or a minimum wage are no longer debated.

What determines this pattern of change and continuity is Thailand’s political trajectory being driven by three forces: the conservative establishment seeking to preserve power and privilege, the broader population seeking greater participation in politics, and the external international environment.There has been significant change in all three dimensions.

First, the external environment. The United States is less powerful than in the decades after the Cold War and its brand of liberal democracy appears to be fading too. At the same time China’s market Leninism is providing an alternative model and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has become less liberal and democratic, notwithstanding Indonesia’s breakthrough.

Second, the conservative establishment has become better at looking like a democracy but not actually being one. It is more inclined, for example, to use judicial means to remove movements rather than military coups.

This notion of sophisticated authoritarianism, coined by Australian political scientist Lee Morgenbesser, tells us why authoritarian states have elections: they create enough uncertainty for the international and in particular the Western community to decide that they will carry on business as usual.

Many governments — if they care — will have observed that Thailand had an election and will not read the fine print on what has happened since, such is the level of mind-numbing complexity in Thailand’s political dynamics.

Third, while Thailand’s demography is changing such that its youth are increasingly impatient with Thailand’s authoritarianism and conservative nostalgia, they are not able to shift a conservative establishment confident it can face down mass protests should they erupt.

This, unfortunately, is the lesson drawn from both the 2010 and 2020 mass protests in Bangkok.

The forces against Thailand transitioning to genuine democracy remain formidable.

Dr Gregory Raymond is a lecturer in the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs at the Australian National University, researching Southeast Asian politics and foreign relations.

Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info™.

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