Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Why Thailand’s Political Paralysis Is Set to Continue

Whatever the result, this week’s election is unlikely to resolve the contradiction that has produced a state of rolling crisis in the country’s politics.

Why Thailand’s Political Paralysis Is Set to Continue

A protestor gestures as police stand guard near the Government House during a demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand, Thursday, June 24, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Wason Wanichakorn

Thailand’s upcoming election is unlikely to resolve the paralysis that has gripped Thai politics and society for much of the 21st century. Once again, the election will mark the culmination of an elite level struggle between conservative royalists and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Thailand’s present polarization is amplified by the fact that following the death of King Bhumibol in 2016, the country has entered a new phase of political discontinuity.

The present political system, which is based on the institutionalization of the monarch as the ultimate source of political legitimacy is dying, but a new political arrangement that might replace it has yet to emerge. Under King Vajiralongkorn, who was crowned in 2019, the Thai monarchy is no longer able to provide political stability. The traditional royal alliance of the military, the civil service, and urban elites were never cohesive enough to build a strong authoritarian government. Instead, the royal alliance relies on a highly politicized judiciary in order to maintain power, as indicated by the recent rise in lese-majeste prosecutions.

Thailand’s current political dispensation is based on the premise of rule by the “good people,” who claim to know what is best for the country and aim to protect it from the unpredictability and venality of elected officials. This has been historically underpinned by conservative and royalist opinion from all strata of Thai society and claims to embody centuries-old Thai traditions.

The current military-backed government under Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha who led the 2014 coup, governs Thailand as a sort of managed democracy. Prayut and his backers use ultra-royalism, anti-corruption, and a conception of moral governance to solidify the government’s hold. Yet popular dissent is growing, especially among young people who are advancing increasingly direct demands for a genuinely democratic system.

The most recent Suan Dusit poll, shows opposition parties in pole position ahead of May 14. The opposition Pheu Thai Party was the preferred choice of 41.3 percent of the 162,000 respondents, with the progressive Move Forward Party (MFP) securing the support of 19.3 percent. The results for the conservative parties reflect the recent internal cleavages in the establishment camp. Early this year. Prayut departed the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which put him in power after the 2019 election, to join the newly formed United Thai Nation Party (UTNP). Both conservative parties, according to the Suan Dusit poll are likely to fare badly, with the UTNP the preferred choice of just 8.4 percent, and the PPRP’s likely support at 7.4 percent. However, with the military controlling all levers of power, Thailand’s paralysis, irrespective of who wins the elections – and early signs point to a good result for opposition parties – looks set to continue.

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Underpinning this paralysis is a divergence between the main sources of political legitimacy in Thailand: barami (prestige, or charisma), and amnāt (authority, or physical power). Governing Thailand has historically involved a symbiosis and mastery of both currents of political legitimacy. Irrespective of who the prime minister is, however, Thailand’s current political structure has generally failed to reconcile or find an equilibrium between these two legitimacies. On the one hand, a central state has tried to employ barami at different times to create, dictate, and impose a morality on the population. On the other hand, recent years have seen the emergence of a decentralized alternative power structure, epitomized most recently by the personality of Thaksin Shinawatra, whose use of amnāt, or attempted use of it, was seen as a challenge to the moral order envisioned by the state. As long as this disjuncture continues, so too will the country’s inequality, economic lethargy, and socio-political polarization.

The Historical Context of Thailand’s Royalist Legitimacies

Barami can be thought of as a form of charisma that arises from moral conduct. It stipulates that power resides in righteous people, who themselves have attained merit through karma accrued in past lives. It bestows legitimacy on existing hierarchies, whether political, economic, or moral; it emanates from a higher plane, and flows downward. In the Thai context, the ideal monarch has been viewed as a phothisat (one who has attained Buddha status), someone who is generous, virtuous, detached, and composed.

This is contrasted with amnāt, which is more temporal in nature. Amnāt is a type of phra det (physical power). It is commonly translated as “authority,” and refers to the position one holds within an existing social structure. It is not an inherent characteristic as barami is stipulated to be. What it primarily refers to its effectiveness, and unlike barami, it flows upwards from its base.

Despite its attempt to portray itself as the embodiment of centuries-long traditions of Thai governance, royalism, or rather the neo-royalism espoused by the current military leadership, is less than 60 years old. Royalism underwent a major ideological reorientation in the 1950s and 1960s, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej (r. 1946-2016) resacralized as a sacred, democratic, and popular ruler.

Bhumibol’s handling of the Bloody May incident, in 1992, in which he rebuked both Gen. Suchinda Krayapoon, who appointed himself prime minister, and Chamlong Srimuang, a former major general and governor of Bangkok, of threatening to “destroy the country,” was well received. Bhumibol’s handling of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, during which he criticized the country’s growth model and advocated for a Buddhist-inspired sufficiency economy, saw him venerated as a Dhammaraja, a heavenly and moral monarch.

Prayut has sought to find a balance between barami and amnāt by relying on ultra-royalism, that is, the re-sacralization of the monarch; anti-corruption, the understanding of which has changed from misuse of funds for personal gain into unpatriotic behavior; and promises of good governance. In Thai terms, the latter is less about efficient and transparent government, but is translated, according to Prawase Wasi, as Thammarat, meaning “virtuous state.” Less than virtuously, however, Prayut’s policies, stretching back to the 2014 coup, have been aimed at eliminating the influence of Thaksin and his followers from politics.

Opposition Parties and Thailand’s Political Legitimacy

In recent years, opposition to the Thai military has been largely associated with the personality of Thaksin. The billionaire telecom magnate came to political prominence with a landslide election victory in 2001. His success was predicated on populist policies such as universal health care, the promotion of entrepreneurship, which was to benefit the middle class in the rural north and northeast of Thailand, and the expansion of infrastructure.

In his attempts to wield amnāt, Thaksin ended up alienating Thailand’s conservative elites, and the military, not just by the above policies but also because of his war on drugs, which led to thousands of deaths, and accusations of corruption. Conversely, Thaksin also gave a voice to the inhabitants of the north and northeast of the country, who are considered less than “perfectly Thai.” Thaksin was the first politician who took the rural populace of the north and northeast seriously as voters.

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Thaksin’s 36-year-old daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, Pheu Thai’s current leader, has adopted a similar populist agenda, and added pollution reduction, a higher minimum wage, and a promise to turn Thailand into a digital financial hub. In addition to using populist policies associated with her father’s rule, she is also using her name for political gain and leverage. There is speculation that Paetongtarn will form a coalition with Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, the leader of the PPRP, in an attempt at political reconciliation. But Thaksin’s statement this week that he plans to return to Thailand in July, after 17 years in self-imposed exile, could lead to Paetongtarn being labeled a proxy for her father.

There is little doubt that the military government ignored fundamental civil rights during the five years of direct military rule that followed the 2014 coup, and calls for justice and a return to genuinely democratic rule are increasingly becoming more vocal, as evidenced by the growing popularity of the MFP. The military-drafted 2017 Constitution was an attempt to regain legitimacy through representative means as part of Prayut’s attempt at balancing barami and amnāt.

Pheu Thai is aiming for an outright majority. But its chances are diminishing, especially given the popularity of the MFP amongst younger voters. The electoral system also remains stacked in favor of conservative elites. The Constitution gives an unelected Senate a say in appointing the prime minister. This is how Prayut was able to retain power after the 2019 election, though his party was certainly not the most popular.

The crux of the matter is this. Thailand’s military-backed government wants electoral legitimacy. The monarchy is the theoretical holder of barami, and elected politicians, the theoretical holders of amnāt. The 2014 coup was aimed at ridding Thai politics of the influence of the Shinawatra family of synthesizing barami and amnāt under the rule of Prayut and the military-backed PPRP. But with Thaksin’s Pheu Thai allies enjoying a big lead in pre-election polls, and both currents of legitimacy being used as political weapons by both sides, Thailand’s political polarization, and the paralysis that has resulted, look set to persist irrespective of the result.