The two faces of Thai authoritarianism

Thailand has swung from authoritarianism of electoral politics to authoritarianism imposed by the military. It needs to get the balance right.


Thai politics has completed a dramatic turn.

From the electoral authoritarianism under deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001-06, it has become a virtual military government under General Prayuth Chan-ocha today.

These two sides of the authoritarian coin - electoral and military - represent Thailand's painful learning curve in political development.

The most daunting challenge for the country is not to end up with one or the other, but to come up with a hybrid that combines 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 of Thailand being painted is that of a society which saw the contentious rise in power of a few, to a pluralistic rule by the many. The latter heralded an era of mass politics in the 21st century no longer dictated by traditional power brokers such as the monarchy, but is, at the same time, 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.

That Thailand has seen democratic rule cannot be denied. But it is the nature of Thai polity that such rule will be resisted as long as there is no new balance to bridge the old order and new power arrangements. And even when a government is democratically elected, like Thaksin's, its nature can be extremely authoritarian.

Democratic, but authoritarian

THIS was where the pendulum had been in the past decade.

A decade ago, Thaksin was pre-eminent in Thailand.

He had earlier squeaked through an assets concealment trial on a narrow and dodgy vote after leading his party to a dominant position in the January 2001 election, the first under Thailand's much-vaunted 1997 Constitution. His party later formed a coalition government.

A consummate politician and former police officer, who hailed from a new capitalist group that exploited a giddy stock market to generate great wealth from a vast telecommunications conglomerate, Thaksin benefited from 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 health care, 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 the absence of a strong opposition.

Thaksin penetrated and captured what were designed as independent agencies to promote accountability, particularly the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission and the anti-corruption commission.

His confidants and loyalists found their way into steering these agencies. His cousin, at one point, became the army's 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.

Similarly, Thaksin's business allies and associated partners secured plum concessions and choice government procurement projects. After his landslide victory in February 2005, including the capture of 32 out of 37 MP seats in Bangkok, he 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 eventually got the better of him. His making of a lucrative business out of politics led to his downfall in the September 2006 military coup.

Thaksin's rule was democratic on paper, but authoritarian in practice.

Yet, his legacy is strong. He managed to run the country by proxy in 2008 and 2011-14 under his sister Yingluck Shinawatra. But Ms Yingluck's governments were politically paralysed by anti-Thaksin street protests and never had a chance of lasting a full term.

Her administration this year came to grief after Thaksin's Puea Thai party (the reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai which was disbanded for electoral fraud) proposed a Bill that would grant blanket amnesty to all convictions related to political conflicts dating back to 2004.

Amid widespread protests, the military declared martial law on May 20 this year, and seized power in a bloodless coup two days later. That May 22 putsch was merely the knockout blow to an ineffectual administration that was not allowed to govern.

Pendulum swings

NOW the pendulum is at the other authoritarian end.

The tone and texture of the May 22 coup led by Gen Prayuth made it a foregone conclusion that the military would dominate politics, epitomised by the general himself becoming prime minister.

Gen Prayuth now spearheads an outright authoritarian regime with no democratic pretences, ruling with absolute power. His is a military government on paper and in practice during the interim period.

Gen Prayuth's coup allies under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have now taken key portfolios and become the stewards of the Thai economy, society, foreign affairs, and internal security. The structure of power under the NCPO is clear.

After seizing power, the NCPO 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 during the Thaksin period, but with military classmates and siblings. In turn, the NLA chose Gen Prayuth as prime minister. The caretaker prime minister then selected his Cabinet, more than one-third of which is from the military.

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, Cabinet, and the NCPO.

Like a politburo, 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 structure completely bypasses the electorate.

As Thaksin enjoyed immense personal popularity then, so does Gen Prayuth now. His no-nonsense, state-of-the-nation Friday speeches so far have been to the point, hitting appealing tones.

The NCPO's anti-corruption campaign has struck popular chords. It would certainly score more points if it dared to aim at corruption schemes and concessions higher up, not just the low-hanging fruit like extortion rackets that run motorcycle taxis and the state lottery.

Gen Prayuth and the NCPO 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 with the coup, at least in the initial period, because there was no alternative in the face of continuing martial law.

But reality will start to bite as the military-dominated government starts its day-to-day work this week. The next 14 or so months of the NCPO's timetable to return to democratic rule may be long and hard.

The military-backed government faces a tall order of addressing grievances and expectations from an electorate that feels neglected. Those who spoke out against the political monster the Thaksin regime eventually became must now be wary of the military-backed government soon treading that same path.

Neither the path of unaccountable power with absolute authority, nor the path of direct rule that appeals to populist desires, is advisable in Thailand. Past experiences in the 1960s and early 70s and in 1991-92 show that such paths falter and end in grief and tears.

The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.