Popular Authoritarianism: Understanding the Struggle for Democracy in Thailand

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

After five years under a military junta, Thailand finally managed to hold elections on March 24th with the supposed objective of gaining a democratically-elected government. Hopes were high, but expectations remained carefully low as the country went through a familiar step in its recurring political cycle. The fact that there were elections at all seems like a victory, but Thais have been through this part of the never-ending circle before: elections, civil unrest, coup d’état, more elections, more civil unrest. Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s been this way since the country became a democracy in 1932. In fact, there’s a Wikipedia page written in Thai about the thirteen coup d’états the country has since had, which lists them off numerically in a depressing catalogue. With this kind of history, it’s not surprising that some would give up on the dream of a stable democracy.

Although the military government is resented by some, there are also many Thai citizens who appreciate it. Several pre-election polls conducted by research centers across the country have established the Palang Pracharath Party (PPP) as a favorite among the electorate. The PPP is controversial because it is clearly the party of the current military government. Prayuth Chan-o-cha, general of the army and head of the junta currently in charge of the country is the PPP’s candidate for Prime Minister. This year’s race was mainly between the PPP and the Pheu Thai Party (PP), a party that has always been at the forefront of Thailand’s political arena. Real election results reflect these polls relatively well, and no one was too surprised when the PP ended up winning the race, with the PPP following closely behind. Even without the pre-election polls, a look at Thailand’s voters on social media could be enough to clue one in on the cleavages that were forming. While trending posts often reflect acrid dissatisfaction with the junta, there are also many posts showing support for it. An examination of voter demographics could help explain this divergence.

Some pre-election polls were conducted only among the student population of a university. Chulalongkorn University, one of the largest and oldest institutions of the country, set up a poll that showed that support was strongest not for PPP or PP, but for another party called the Future Forward party (FP). The Future Forward party was new this cycle, conspicuous in the pool of veterans that have dominated Thai politics for so long. FP was established only a year before elections, but managed to garner overwhelming support and finished third in the electoral race. FP is unique for its place on the political spectrum – it leans unapologetically more towards the left than any other prominent parties. Putting themselves forward as champions of democratic rules and societal reform, they hold a special appeal for progressives and idealists alike.

Other parts of the electorate, however, hold completely different views. Before going into accusations of fraud – and there are definitely many that can be made – one must also realize that the PPP’s success in the election isn’t only because of rigged votes, if any exist. Even though those who don’t support Prayuth might see it as convenient to dismiss his popularity among voters as unfairly gained, doing so would just be denying the truth that part of the electorate simply doesn’t care about the fact that Prayuth came into prominence undemocratically. The military has long been part of politics in Thailand, with generals serving as prime ministers on more occasions than one can count. What harm could another one be, really? In fact, many prefer military intervention in politics to the civil unrest that plagues the country regularly without it.

The question as to why autocratic leaders appeal to the public is a complicated one. Thailand isn’t quite a military dictatorship; all the components of a parliamentary democracy are more or less in place. There are different opinions as to how democracy should be classified, but in this case it is easier to talk about democracy as a spectrum. If true democracy, say, lies on the rightmost side of this spectrum, and totalitarianism lies on the left, the fact that Prayuth became prime minister through a coup d’état has nudged the country leftwards. This leftward shift isn’t unique to Thailand, and has been happening with increasing frequency in today’s world. In Europe, for example, governments have shown an increasing shift towards authoritarianism. Poland, Hungary, Turkey – all are instances of democracies that have slowly been moving towards autocracy.

The growing autocracy in these countries is rather different from what one would call old-school dictatorships. This isn’t Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. These governments aren’t employing tanks on the street or committing mass genocide. They are not ruling the public through fear, but rather by appealing to their interests. Poland’s PiS party, for example, has turned to intense nationalism to garner support from the population. An article in the New York Times effectively describes how the PiS, once the opposition party, overtook the Civic Platform party (PO) and became an uncontested power in the Senate. Since the previous head of the PO, Donald Tusk, resigned to become president of the European council, the PiS has been able to rally support by championing nationalist ideals. The party has managed to “thrive on cultural and identity politics.” After emphasizing a special identity for the Poles, and supporting a historical narrative that favors them, the PiS has become so popular that many of its autocratic moves, like passing unconstitutional laws that increase their influence on the Supreme Court, are largely condoned.

In a similar manner, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was also incredibly popular because of his populist policies. He provided large subsidies to citizens through oil money, and was credited for the high economic growth in the country during his time in power. He was voted into office for three six-year terms, and was beginning a fourth one when his health declined, and he finally stepped down, in 2013. His various social programs, which were dubbed the “Bolivarian Missions,” included promoting literacy, low-income housing, and food subsidies. These policies, while economically unsustainable because of their huge reliance on oil revenues, endeared him greatly to the public. Therefore, even though Chavez remained in office for much longer than the constitution actually allowed him to, his offense was forgiven easily because of his popularity.

The PiS and Chavez are similar in that a sufficient part of the population liked them enough to let them get away with their misconduct. Such is the case in Thailand, where the ex-general has proved effective enough in keeping the peace that his coup was basically forgiven. Add that to the long-established presence of the military in Thailand in the first place, and some may see that there isn’t much to forgive at all. While it is easy to resort to pointing fingers and demonizing those with opposing political ideals, it is important to understand why people support the politicians they do. Perhaps if enough emphasis were put on non-violent discourse, there would be less political violence and more willingness to talk out differences.

After the election results, PP and FP entered talks and have agreed to form a coalition. Along with a scattering of other parties, they have so far managed to group together and achieve a majority in the government. Calling themselves the coalition “For Democracy” as a not-so-subtle jab at the opposing PPP, these parties, despite some ideological disparities, have decided to unite under a shared dissatisfaction with the military junta. How these differences will play out in the House of Representatives when the government is actually trying to pass bills is up for speculation. It is possible that the disparities could lead to indecision and a shutdown, as often happens in the United States. Alternatively, the government could actually manage to run smoothly until the next round of elections in four years. Whatever the case, and whoever becomes prime minister – whether it will be Prayuth or someone from the “For Democracy” coalition is still a matter of contention – the Thai people still hold on to the hope of a stable future.

Kristha Jenvaiyavasjamai