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Thailand's Political System
The Thailand Theses

Until as recently as 1932, Thailand was still ruled by an absolute monarchy. Numerous constitutions, several coups and countless political parties later, we ask the question: Is Thailand’s political system evolving or stagnating? Find out our answer here...

Politics is still a relatively new concept in Thailand, and it has been on a roller coaster ride to democracy since 1932, when what was to become the first of many coups led to the changeover from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. Many have fought and even died in the name of democracy, yet 72 years later, has the country’s political system actually evolved?

For democracy to be truly effective, it needs to be built on the foundation of an ideologically strong two-party political system. Ever since the introduction of a constitutional monarchy, Thailand has certainly been a nation divided, but an effective two-party system has never fully evolved for a variety of reasons.

Immediately after that very first coup back in 1932, Thailand splintered and a power struggle began between a group of leftist civilians, led by lawyer Pridi Phanomyong, and an aristocratic military group, under the leadership of Colonel Plaek Phibunsongkhram. It was a dirty war, which the military won, signalling the beginning of a long period of military-backed governments and constitutional amendments that would force the socialists into the wilderness – both politically and geographically – for decades.   

Under such a power monopoly, Thailand’s fledgling political system could not mature. Whenever enough opposition was mustered to implement change or threaten the status quo, it was put down in coups or bloody confrontations between unarmed student protestors and the army, with the military inevitably coming out on top each time.

The right-leaning military governments grew and evolved in the absence of any meaningful opposition. For it to complete its evolution, a civilian facade was needed and today the Democrat Party is the established and unified political party of the amataya (aristocracy or bureaucratic elite). It counts on the support of Bangkok’s middle classes and, occasionally, on yellow-shirted protestors, yet it still maintains its close allegiance to the military.  

In stark contrast, whether through military oppression or apathetic ignorance of their rights, the grass roots of Thai society remained unrepresented and all but disenfranchised for decades. While numerous small parties came into existence, the lack of any clear mandate meant that these parties served more as an extension of individual egos than as an ideological platform for the people. To make matters worse, they were so factionalised as to be totally ineffective, selling their political souls as they negotiated fragile allegiances with the highest bidder.  In this climate, no viable second party evolved.

And then, as Thailand stumbled out of a major financial crisis, a white knight came riding over the horizon and turned Thai  politics inside out. Thaksin Shinawatra’s successful business background convinced Bangkok’s middle classes that he was the right man to take Thailand forward. Populist policies convinced rural north and north-eastern Thais that this was the man to rouse them from their political slumber. He and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) Party won two landslide elections. With the support of the middle and the working classes, could this be a man for ALL the people?

Unfortunately, the answer was a resounding “no”. Thaksin may have come to office democratically, but once in power, he is alleged to have used every means possible to stay there and increase both his power and personal wealth, all at the expense of democracy and the Thai people he claimed to love. Widely accused of corruption and vote-buying on a level considered excessive even by Thai standards, he quickly lost the support of the middle classes and simply had to go.

With Thaksin ousted by the military in yet another coup, it seemed that the socialist opposition would be divided and weakened again, but Thaksin refused to concede defeat. From a position of self-imposed exile following his conviction on corruption charges, he has continued to bankroll his army of rural supporters who have remained loyal and rallied around their leader’s cause.

Now known as the red shirts, can they fill the role of a united socialist alternative to the middle and upper class Democrat Party? The answer to that question is dependent on two key points: the development of a clear mandate, and the severance of all links with their leader.

The first point that should not be overlooked is the lack of clear party policies. Neither the red shirts nor any of the political parties they have followed are ever referred to as socialists or even left-leaning despite their supposed representation of the poor rural masses. If they are to form Thailand’s elusive second party, this must be the ideological foundations on which they build.

As we saw under Thaksin, populist politics win votes, but they must be supported by substantial investment and long-term strategies. Instead of being destructive of their enemies, the red shirts need to become constructive of their own policies. We need to hear what their goals are and how they plan to take Thailand forward if they are to build their long-term credibility.  

No matter how just their underlying cause, however, there remains one fatal flaw with the modern-day socialist movement – their benefactor. As long as the red-shirted socialists champion Thaksin as their leader, they will never be allowed to form the second major party in Thailand’s political system and will remain nothing more than a mob of rebels without a cause of their own. The infamous 500 baht handouts may have bought their support, but they have blinded the red shirts to their true needs and robbed them of any hope for a better future.

Is Thailand’s political system evolving or stagnating? While the possibility of a meaningful two-party system has recently been reawakened, it has been built on greed rather than ideology leaving us to conclude that Thai politics continues to bear the overwhelming stench of stagnation.

Paul Snowdon – February 27, 2010

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