Dan Slater is the James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science, the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Professor of Emerging Democracies, and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. His most recent book (coauthored with Joseph Wong) is From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia. More recently he wrote the article “Thailand’s Revolutionary Election” at the Journal of Democracy.
Democracy is Eastern as well as Western.
- Introduction – 0:41
- An Inspiring Election – 2:38
- Parties and Politics – 5:09
- Forming a Government – 21:09
- Risks and Hope – 35:53
On May 14th Thai voters participated in a consequential election. They sent a distinct message that they wanted change and that they wanted democracy. About two-thirds of the electorate voted for political parties pushing for civilian-led democratic government.
Dan Slater has called this a “revolutionary election” in a recent post on the Journal of Democracy blog. You might remember Dan from an earlier episode when we were discussing Democracies in Hard Places. He discussed Indonesian politics and his most recent book, cowritten with Joseph Wong, From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia.
Dan Slater is the James Orin Murfin Professor of Political Science, the Ronald and Eileen Weiser Professor of Emerging Democracies, and director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan. He’s also among the most informed scholars about politics in Southeast Asia.
Now before we get started I want to note that Dan and I recorded this episode a few days ago. At the time, Dan was worried the Election Commission might invalidate some of the electoral results. However, yesterday the Election Commission certified the results and endorsed the election of all 500 MPs. Still, there is a lot of uncertainty over who will become prime minister. But this episode is not so much about the day to day politics in Thailand. Rather its goals are to help explain the significance of the recent elections, help you to better understand the larger political dynamics, and how recent events will affect the prospects for further democratization in Thailand.
If you like this conversation, please support the podcast as a monthly donor on Patreon or a paid subscriber on Apple podcasts. You’ll access some exclusive bonus episodes and early access to all new episodes. You can also help with a rating or review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Like always you can email comments or questions to email@example.com. But for now… This is my conversation with Dan Slater…
Dan Slater, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thanks for having me back.
So, Dan, I loved your piece in the Journal of Democracy blog, “Thailand’s Revolutionary Election.” It’s interesting. There’s been so many conversations about Turkey, so much focus on the Turkish election that I feel Thailand’s really been overlooked. It was a very consequential election in my opinion. Yet, I’m not sure that many people understand how important it really was. So, why don’t we start with the headline here. Why was the recent election in Thailand so inspiring?
Well, I think it was inspiring in the sense that it was really an occasion when youth voters, urban voters, picked up on the momentum that they had gained from the massive protests back in 2020. Those really struck a huge blow against the military’s grip on political power that it’s basically had since 2006, at a minimum, when they had conducted their first coup against Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister. Basically since 2006, they’ve been giving dribs and drabs of civilian power through elections, but basically holding onto power for the military and its allies through an unappointed senate and through a series of safeguards, which has basically. relegated Thailand to an electrical authoritarian regime.
But from a deeper historical perspective, like even deeper than that, the military has been the supreme political force throughout Thai history. In 1932 the Thai military toppled the absolute monarchy. But rather than this becoming something that then led to popular sovereignty, it’s really been military sovereignty in tandem with the monarchy. So, the opposition in this parliamentary election won a substantial majority. Two parties, the Move Forward Party and the Pheu Thai, won a substantial majority and they both are calling for the military’s role in political life to be reduced and in a more subtle way for the supreme position of the monarchy to be tempered as well.
We don’t know where it’s going to go next. The electoral results might not get respected. They might not be honored, but I wanted to take a moment to say that the election itself was a very, very big deal, even if the fruits of it are denied to the Thai people. In some ways it’s important to recognize how much they’ve claimed, because then we should appreciate how much will be taken away if the electoral results aren’t respected.
There’s a lot to unpack there. Thailand specifically, in my opinion, is one of the more complicated countries, because, as you’ve already put forward, the military is heavily involved in its politics, there is a monarchy that is still heavily involved in its politics, and elections are fascinating as well. I mean, Thaksin Shinawatra, his parties have typically dominated Thai politics, Thai elections in the past. What I found really fascinating about this election was that Move Forward actually got more seats in this election. I think that’s what really struck everybody is this new political party, which isn’t entirely new because it’s kind of the reincarnation of a party that was made illegal. But how does it differ from Pheu Thai that is kind of a reincarnation itself of one of Thaksin’s old political parties?
In some ways the biggest story was that Pheu Thai didn’t win. People expected Pheu Thai to prevail and they did very well, but they came in second. Move Forward really leaped forward and leaped past them. So now, rather than there being just one overwhelmingly powerful opposition party, Pheu Thai, there are now two. Now both of these parties are successors to previously banned political parties that were banned for a variety of reasons by Thai courts. Thais courts are not independent. They’re not democratic courts and the courts have, in the past, done the bidding of these military regimes in banning popular politicians – unpopular to the military, popular to the Thai people – in banning them from politics.
So, yes, after the last election, the party called Future Forward was banned along with its leader. So, Move Forward in some ways showed the popular backlash to that decision. The fact that it had been banned in its previous incarnation, ironically helped it, because it became a very, very clear galvanizing center for opposition. Pheu Thai, historically, the first time they won elections under Thaksin was in 2001. Basically, the story with Pheu Thai is it’s essentially a populist party with a somewhat rural base. It stampeded to electoral victories by mobilizing the peasantry in the northeast who had not been mobilized in politics before. Politics have been very, very focused on the Bangkok political center.
So, this is quite an earthquake. Move Forward won in Pheu Thai’s strongholds. They won in all the big cities. They won nationwide. They won the youth vote. They’ve got a very youthful prime ministerial candidate. Pheu Thai’s candidate is also very young. So, there’re now these two parties, which are at this point, claiming and planning to work together to form a government. But they don’t have enough seats to form a government because of the Senate. In a normal parliamentary system, they would’ve cleared 50% easily. Pita, who is the leader of the Move Forward Party, would be Prime Minister. Pheu Thai would be the secondary partner, all done and dusted, pretty straightforward and simple.
The problem is you have a 250-member appointed Senate, which last time around voted unanimously for Prayut, the general who is currently Prime Minister. So, they’ve got to get, I believe it’s 66. The coalition numbers keep shifting, but something on the order of over 60 members of the Senate to vote for Pita as Prime Minister. Pita is on the record as saying he wants to get rid of Thailand’s Lèse-majesté laws, which protect the king from insult. Now Move Forward has said they won’t insist on that to join a coalition. They won’t pursue that. But it’s an uphill climb for a Move Forward led government to recruit enough support from the Senate to actually get to the magic 50%, not just of the House, but of the House and the Senate combined. So, 50% of 750, not just 500.
Yeah, let’s come back to that, because I think that gets into some details and gets into some questions. I mean, we still don’t have a prime minister in Thailand after these elections, so it’s still a little bit of an open question as to how the politics are really going to play out. But in terms of the history of Pheu Thai, which dates back again to Thaksin, who is a Prime Minister dating back to the early 2000s, he’s been labeled as populist, which among “small d” democrats is kind of a bad word. How democratic was Thaksin when he was in office and has his movement changed over time after so many military coups?
If we go back to the early 2000s, Thai politics had always been very, very fragmented. Basically, after the 1998 financial crisis, they changed the electoral rules and made it such that one party could win a lot more power. That’s what happened. The party at that time was called Thai Rak Thai or Thais love Thais. Thaksin was the richest man in the country. So, you can hear echoes of Berlusconi or echoes of Trump if you wish. But this idea of the most successful businessman in the country and he has a background in the police, so this is not a businessman who got there strictly through market forces by any stretch of the imagination. Through force of money and personality stampedes to this majority win and was allowed to rule from 2001 to 2006.
It’s interesting, because this is really before the populist turn we see around the world. It’s kind of a precocious case of populism, before you had this wave of them in the 2010s. It’s even a decade before that. Ironically, it’s around the same time as Erdoğan is elected in Turkey. So, it was basically an illiberal democracy, foreshadowing what happened with the Rodrigo Duterte government in the Philippines. There was a very vicious extra-legal crackdown on suspected drug offenses. There was a substantial amount of corruption. I mean, ultimately what made Thaksin untenable was popular protest over his sale of the shares in his corporation to Singaporeans. Basically, he was seen as a national sellout. He had deeply suspect democratic credentials, I would say. At least that was how people saw things in 2006.
But then when people look at what has replaced it for the last 17 years, I think people tend to look back and say, ‘Well, Thaksin brought new groups into politics and he clearly had majority support or he still has majority support.’ So, it’s not really a case where there’s a lot of debate on which side are the democratic angels. I think it’s pretty clear that Thai Rak Thai should have been allowed to stay in power. The coup was certainly not justified and Pheu Thai won elections since then, so they too should have been given a chance to rule and try to do a little bit of a better job than they did before they were toppled in 2006.
Yeah. I’m not trying to justify the military coup by any stretch of the imagination.
But what’s interesting about Move Forward is that they come across as a much more liberal political party, if not a more democratic political party. Their alliance with Pheu Thai comes across to me as a little bit of an evolution of that movement as well after so many military coups that it feels more democratic than maybe it did in the past under Thaksin. I mean, do you get that sense as well or am I reading too much into that?
Well, I think it’s hard to know until you have power. But I do think that Pheu Thai and the Thaksin family, if you will, because it’s still largely a family run enterprise, have been very chastened by the experience. I think that even before the coup Thaksin was really trying to make very moderate noises about not challenging the monarchy and not challenging the military. So, I argue in the article that it wasn’t really anything Thaksin was doing with power that led the military to get rid of them. It was much more just the fact that the military didn’t want anyone to be rivalling their power. There’s an analogy here in Myanmar, which is that the National League for Democracy, the NLD, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, is simply too popular for the military to stand it.
They just couldn’t take it – ‘No. We are supreme and we’re going to stay supreme.’ I was thinking recently about all the arguments about socialist parties and Islamic parties and how they moderate over time. I think there’s something to that in all likelihood with Pheu Thai in the sense that being denied power and spending decades of thinking of themselves as a worthy ruling party probably means they’re going to be willing to be more compromising than a party like Move Forward, which I think is justifiable. They’re new. They’re upstart. But they won big and they should by all rights be allowed to form a government.
My guess is Pheu Thai will be much more open to – although they claim they won’t – but will at the end of the day be more open to possibly working with more pro-military, pro-regime parties to build a coalition if it turns out that Move Forward is disallowed, which I think is quite likely from actually forming the government.
I think it is important to note that Move Forward only has a 10-seat lead over Pheu Thai. I mean, it’s 151 seats to 141 in a 500 seat Parliament. We’re not talking about just an enormous difference of seats. So, even in a democratic system, it wouldn’t be unheard of for Pheu Thai to form a government if Move Forward can’t put a coalition together.
Mathematically speaking, yes. I think politically speaking, it’s a bit different in the sense of the kind of upsurge that this vote suggests. The fact that the two parties both are so clearly trying to move the country away from military domination, from monarchical domination. The fact that those two parties won as much as they did means that an alliance between Pheu Thai and the old guard is a major, major step back from what the voters quite overwhelmingly demanded. Not all number two parties are created equal. Not all coalitions between number two and number three parties are created equal, even though mathematically they’re always possible.
Here, I think, it’s also somewhat different from the Indonesian case. Indonesia is a place where parties have been very, very ready, open, willing to share power with each other and the divide between opposition and regime is much milder. So, if it winds up that the party that doesn’t win the most seats in parliament, winds up getting the president, that’s not a huge deal. That’s not such a big problem.
Here it would really send a very powerful signal of the old guard just not being willing to see where all the energy and enthusiasm and youthful movement in Thai politics and in urban politics as well is going and trying to put the brakes on it. So, it would be more difficult, more controversial than simply saying one and two are close. Two can make coalitions a little more easily than one, so this is a nice, kind of smooth compromise. It wouldn’t be an act of compromise. It would be an act of oligarchic, autocratic, military assertion.
And in some sense a betrayal.
Well, right. This is the thing. With Pheu Thai, I think people were less convinced that they would avoid those kind of coalitions. I mean, Pheu Thai and the military and these military parties have a long history of dealing with each other by this point. It’s been a couple decades of this dance in which elections are held and first Thai Rak Thai, now Pheu Thai won. ‘Well, are we going to let them take power? What are we going to do?’ For a while there’s a Prime Minister from Pheu Thai, but then they were in trouble with the courts. So, it’s certainly not too difficult to imagine them coming to some kind of agreement, coming to some kind of modus operandi with each other.
But that’s where Move Forward just throws an enormous spanner in the works and makes it very difficult for that to happen. I think probably the military, the monarchy, a lot of these elites were pretty comfortable with the idea that they had engineered things in such a way that this election would yield maybe a Pheu Thai led government or one where Pheu Thai doesn’t have all the power, where Pheu Thai has to share power with these more conservative parties and they could live with that. That’s the way Thailand democratized in the eighties. That’s the way they tried to democratize in the nineties after a brief military interlude. Basically, just don’t be too radical. Make sure no party is too strong.
So, in one sense, Move Forward is a huge complication. Because I think it messes up what was a Pheu Thai-led, but kind of a wide coalition that was likely to take power. In one sense, it’s scarier for the military, but on the other hand it’s less scary that now there’s not just one dominant opposition force. There are two and what that means is to the extent that Pheu Thai was unacceptable, because the Thaksin family was starting to look like a royal family of its own, that’s no longer scary. So, to the extent that a more divided opposition is a less threatening one, the military and its allies could also say, ‘We can live with this, because it’s not just one, it’s two. Over time, divisions are likely to arise and they’re not going to be displacing us as easily.’ So, that’s certainly a possibility.
Why did the Thai military think that more conservative parties would win in this election?
Oh, they didn’t. Oh, they definitely didn’t. This is true in Myanmar too, by the way. So, Thailand has a very long history of the military holding elections, of sponsoring political parties, kind of pro-military, or at least comfortable with the military parties, and they never win. They never win. They weren’t going to win this time. They didn’t win in the 2000s. They never win. This is why they’ve been engineering the political system so that they can basically not lose power even though no pro-military party can win elections. If you just hold free and fair elections, for 20 years it’s been Thai Rak Thai or Pheu Thai that would win outright. Now you put in the appointed Senate. You require the Senate to support a prime ministerial candidate. You throw sand in the gears.
You make it very hard for an opposition party to just outright win power. You’re willing to share power, but you’re not willing to lose power. And that’s even to the extent the military ever loses power. Even from 2001 to 2006, the military didn’t lose power. They just didn’t control the government. So, it’s all about engineering things so that when they lose elections – because they know they’re going to lose elections – they don’t want to lose too much. That’s been the goal. So, in a way, the big question is – Do they feel like they lost more or lost less by the fact that Move Forward has emerged and surpassed Pheu Thai? I think you could read it two different ways.
But I had the impression from your previous comments that you thought that the military believed that they would win more seats. That the government would be more fragmented than it really was. Not that Move Forward would fragment the politics with Pheu Thai, but that there’d be more conservative politicians that would win seats, so it wouldn’t seem that they lost quite as big as they did.
That’s right. It was a bigger landslide than expected. They knew they weren’t going to win, but I think they expected Pheu Thai to win. Everybody expected Pheu Thai to win yet again. But the hope was, ‘Well, I hope it won’t be too big of a landslide, and even if it’s kind of a big landslide, they’re still going to have to go through our Senate. It’s not going to be so big that they don’t need the Senate to build a coalition. So, as long as we have Pheu Thai in a coalition government and not ruling on its own like it did in the early 2000s.’ That’s something that the military and the conservative power elite are more or less willing to at least experiment with and at least do on a trial basis.
I wouldn’t say they’re comfortable with it, but it’s something they’re willing to countenance. Whether or not they’re willing to countenance a party like Move Forward being in power given its differences from Pheu Thai, more radical on the monarchy, whether they’re willing to accept a coalition government that’s totally the opposition, that all these regime-comfortable parties are left out – Are they even comfortable with that? Well, only if they get a bunch of members of the Senate.
At this point, the Senate is doing nothing while the election commission certifies the results, if for no other reason than because they think there’s a very good chance that either Move Forward is going to be banned as a party or more likely that Pita individually, as a Prime Minister gets banned in which case Move Forward would not be able to form a government. So, everybody’s waiting to see if the courts do their dirty work for them.
Let’s do the math assuming that Move Forward does not get banned. The Prime Minister is chosen by the 500-member lower house of Parliament along with the 250 member Senate, so that would be 750 votes.
You need 375.
Which in theory you could then get from the lower house of Parliament exclusively. Why is it that they can’t get those extra 85 some odd votes out of the lower house of Parliament rather than using votes in the Senate?
Well, if you’re one of these other parties in the lower house, if you’re going to join a government, you’re going to want cabinet seats. You’re going to want a big share. Again, there are trade-offs here. So, do you try to build a coalition with other political parties who are your competitors or do you try to get the Senate, which is not elected, not political, not your rivals in that sense, just try to get a quarter of it or so on your side. So, you’re right. They have to some degree. They have I think five or six other smaller political parties joined this Move Forward led Pheu Thai-joined coalition as minnows, along with the shark and the whale, if you will.
So, yeah, you’re absolutely right. It could be at the end of the day, Move Forward isn’t banned, as you say. Pita is not banned. They get something like 40 senators and maybe try to cobble it together with a few more political parties. One or two more that are more conservative and then the question is would Move Forward be comfortable doing that. They’ve pledged not to do it. Even Pheu Thai has pledged not to do that. So, I think they tied their own hands a little bit in that respect, but also that’s what helped them get so much support. The voters wanted them to say, ‘We’re not going to just share power and coalition with these guys. We want you to vote against this military government.’ And that’s what they did.
So, we’re talking a lot about the military having enormous influence and they do. I mean, the military is probably the dominant political force in Thailand at the moment. But Move Forward is very controversial because it takes a stance that’s somewhat anti-monarchical. It’s taken a stance against the monarchy that’s nominally head of state, that nominally has some political power as well, and I think practically has some political power as well. Can you talk a little bit about how the monarchy in Thailand shapes politics?
So, it’s a little bit in flux at the moment, because for the entire post World War II period, Thailand had one king. And that King, King Bhumibol was incredibly revered, incredibly beloved, had tremendous symbolic power, and was basically politically untouchable. He kind of hovered above politics, meddled in politics all the time, but hovered symbolically above politics. He died a few years ago and his son, to put it mildly, does not have anything like the sheen on him that his father did.
So, part of what’s been going on since 2014 when they did the second coup is that the military wanted to make sure they could get through the coronation of the new king in a way that it had control of and not have someone like Thaksin in charge for that. Just kind of secure the succession, secure the monarchy because the military, honestly, although it’s very powerful, is not very popular. I wouldn’t say it’s as bereft of popularity as the military in Myanmar, which is really bereft of popularity for very good reasons. But it’s not like the Thai military fought for independence or has any heroic history. I mean, the Indonesian military is much more popular than the Thai military. So, they need the monarchy.
That’s what the former military leader Sarit in the 1950s realized. He rebuilt the alliance between military and monarchy. Ever since, there’s been kind of this duumvirate in a way between the military and the monarchy. So, the question now is how does that work with a not very popular king, with a king who’s not a popular hero, who’s not a king who the second his image appears people hop to their feet without any hesitation because that’s the way it worked with the former king.
So, what does that mean? Does that mean the military feels a bit weaker, feels like, ‘Let’s try to not step aside, but let’s kind of share things when we’re not losing too much’? Do they feel like, ‘No, we’re really freaked out because we’ve lost our symbolic cover, so we can’t live with a civilian dominated government at all’? There’s a lot of ways this can cut, but the military can live with elections up to a point so long as those elections produce results that don’t give too much power to any party that is trying to take too much away from the military or the monarchy.
Why does the military continue to feel the need to tie itself to the monarchy? I mean, if there was a competent civilian leader, why wouldn’t the military want to just hitch itself to that new leader and allow the monarchy to wither away or just become less important over time?
You make a good point. I think that with the passing of the late king that becomes more possible. From 1932 to 1957 that was the story – what you just described. So, in 1932, the military topples the absolute monarchy and you get an uneasy alliance between this military leader, Phibun, and a civilian leader named Pridi. Phibun and Pridi had a more popular appeal, more leftist civilian, a very popular politician and a military guy. That alliance came apart in large measure because of World War II and because of the rise of Fascism. Basically, Phibun and the military went with the Fascists and Pridi, and what was called the Free Thai Movement, went with the allies.
Then after the war, it’s a very sorted history in which the young king, who’s the older brother of the late king was apparently murdered, apparently poisoned and murdered, as a way of discrediting Pridi who was his regent. So, it’s a real kind of Game of Thrones story situation here. Right? But you’re right. There was a time when the military did rule without the monarchy as it’s ballast. There was a time when the military and civilians ruled together without the monarchy as a ballast. So, it’s not unthinkable. One could imagine some alliance of the military and perhaps Pheu Thai. But again, there, the voters have really spoken and that’s not what the voters are down for.
It seems to me the smarter play is to say, ‘Okay, you guys go ahead and form your civilian government then.’ This is more like what they did in Myanmar. ‘You go ahead and form your civilian government. You won the elections. You go and take those positions. You get the Prime Minister. You have the legislature. Good on you. But you’re not touching these reserves that we have.’ If they did that, then the voters can feel, and I think Myanmar’s voters felt, pretty great about being able to give these landslide victories to the NLD in 2015 and 2020. It didn’t capture the whole state. The military had lots of power, but there was a real civilian government.
So, it seems to make more sense to me to have the military say, ‘You go ahead and do that.’ It’s just not clear that an alliance that crosses that boundary between the old guard and this new youthful opposition is going to hold water.
You mentioned earlier in the podcast, and you actually mentioned this in your piece too, that Thaksin’s group, the group that is now Pheu Thai, didn’t really have policies that differed substantially from the military. In the piece you wrote, “Thaksin and Thai Rak Thai were not banished from the Thai political scene, because of what they intended to do with their power. They were banished because they had already gained too much power.”
I remember pieces in The Economist that talked about schemes in terms of giving farmers subsidies and stuff like that Thaksin had put in place, that the military just kept in place. They tweaked them, but they didn’t abolish them or anything. There’s a lot of different stuff that the military wasn’t really upset about or rather didn’t substantially change per se. How much of a shock will a Move Forward government be in terms of policies if they have substantial political power in Thailand?
That’s a very good question. This is sort of thinking even further down the tree. I would say about Thailand like the rest of Southeast Asia that there’s no strong political left in the way that we would think about the political left in the United States or in Western Europe. No real pro-redistribution, serious leftist government and parties that make those demands. It’s just not how things are built in Asia. I think it’s partly the history of the developmental state. The way that the capitalist-led development strategies have got people accustomed to high rates of economic growth and not a lot of redistribution. I mean, these were all countries that during the Cold War were very much on the side of the political right, not the political left. In Indonesia, they just killed everyone who was suspected as a communist.
They didn’t do that in a place like Thailand. But in Thailand, the communist movement was very weak to begin with. So, I don’t think there’s anything, certainly in terms of economics or the kinds of policies that we usually would array on a left-right scale, that would be frightening to the elite that Move Forward would be proposing. I don’t think that’s where the story is. I think it’s really more about, just as I was saying, kind of the mere fact of power. If you’re the supreme political power in a country, it’s hard to see somebody else taking your spot no matter what you’re going to do. I think that’s the Myanmar story. It has been the Thailand story.
So, things like getting rid of the Lèse-majesté laws would be a very big deal, but even Move Forward itself acknowledges they know there’s no way that’s happening with any coalition you would have to put together. So, no. I don’t think that as people are currently scheming and calculating would say, ‘Well, can we live with a Move Forward government or not?’ I don’t think a lot of the conversation is that they’re going do this kind of redistribution or the kind of tax the rich sort of stuff that a lot of political scientists think is why democracy collapses. That the rich support a coup, because they don’t want the poor or the left to expropriate them. I don’t think that’s usually the way it works and it’s not the way it would be working in Thailand right now either.
Yeah, I didn’t get the impression that Move Forward was a leftist kind of Social Democratic party per se, so much as closer to a Western-style leftist party that is focused on identity issues and civil liberties. I’m curious how far along that spectrum they actually move, because clearly they are opposed to the monarchy as an institution and they’re a very urban party and a very youthful party. How far along that spectrum are they in terms of protecting civil liberties, individual rights, and different forms of even sexual identity and other issues like that that we see in the West that would be very foreign to people in a place like Thailand?
You’re right. I think on issues like marijuana issues, LGBT rights, certainly just questions of kind of individual rights in general, you’re certainly right that these are things that Move Forward has pushed on and has gotten them a lot of youthful support. Thailand’s a pretty open society. It’s certainly conservative in certain ways, but it’s also a very tolerant and open and vibrant place where I think religion and politics has a pretty light touch. I mean, the Thai South is a different story where you’ve had a history of suppression of the Muslim minority and insurgency so that’s a different story. But in central Thailand, and in most of Thailand, identity conflict is not that intense and there is this opening for some pretty big steps forward in a rights kind of way. So, those are things that, you could imagine, again, conservatives not feeling comfortable with.
I mean, identity can really play a role, and it did certainly with the original toppling of Thai Rak Thai, insofar as it was seen by a lot of Bangkok elites and a lot of central Thais that this was a party of absolute hicks. They had gone out to the northeast of all places and had gotten support from these vote-selling, vote-buying, corrupt sub-civilized North-Easterners, and they were just like, ‘They shouldn’t be running the country.’
It’s actually a bit like what we saw in Brazil with the PT. A lot of the hatred toward the PT in Brazil is not just about like what the policies are. It’s the sense that like a lesser quality human being is seizing power. I mean really, it’s a really deep inequality, a combination of class and regional identity and linguistic identity, because in the Northeast they don’t speak the same dialect of Thai. So, I think what you have is something where people need to feel like they’re being led by people like themselves. That’s been part of the problem with Thai Rak Thai and Pheu Thai all along. I think right now you certainly can’t make that argument about Move Forward. They’ve got national support and urban support and youthful support. Their leaders are accomplished businessman. The one they banned earlier was another accomplished businessman.
I mean these are not hard lefties and I think the identity issues are the kinds of things that, again, in any coalition would be tamped down. So, if they decide to move against Move Forward, whether through asserting a concerted coalition or even through a coup, I’m sure that kind of thing will be part of the pretext, part of the excuse, but I don’t think it’s really where the action is. I think it’s really a question of can we live with a Move Forward-Pheu Thai coalition? Are they going to move against military interests? Are they going to move against the monarchy, centrality, and political life? Basically, how nice will they play? Will they think that they’re the new kings of the country because they run the Parliament and have the Prime Minister or are they going to know their place?
If we think they’re going to know their place, then maybe we can live with it, at least for a trial run as an experiment. But if not, then they could go all the way to just a full-on coup, because ironically, this seems like good news, but could be bad news. The good news in a way is, although the Senate appoints the Prime Minister, the Senate doesn’t vote in votes of no confidence. So, although it takes a majority of 750 to appoint, it only takes a majority of 500 to topple. What that means is if the Senate says, ‘Let’s do what we did last time. Let’s just all vote for a military guy like Prayut and work with the pro-government parties and just say the election was nice, but no, we’re not going to accept it.’
The parliament, the lower house, could just vote a no confidence right away. So, they can’t appoint their own prime minister, at this point, the way the rules are written. And my worry is it could get even worse, which is if they can’t appoint a conservative Prime Minister and if they really feel like they can’t live with a Pheu Thai-Move Forward coalition, then we go back into coup-land. Maybe a Burma scenario where you say, ‘Yeah, the election, that was nice, but we can’t live with these results and the country is ours after all. It’s up to us whether to accept an election result because at the end of the day, Thailand does not have popular sovereignty.’
They’ve never had popular sovereignty. The military and the monarchy have sovereignty, so they decide. The people do not decide. The military and the monarchy decide whether to let the people decide or not, so that’s what the past month and the next month are all about. It is navigating that space.
Let’s draw out this parallel with Burma for just a moment here, because Thailand has had quite a few military coups. Most of the time when you have a military coup, it’s seen as undemocratic, but somewhat stabilizing in terms that the state is exercising its authority. It usually doesn’t result in political anarchy, but that’s exactly what we got over in Myanmar, in Burma not too long ago. Does Myanmar provide the Thai military any lessons after this election?
Well, man, I hope so. I think the lesson here quite clearly, and this is something that Joe Wong and I were talking about in our book From Development to Democracy, is that what these military regimes in developmental Asia have done, so Indonesia, Thailand, and Myanmar, is they set up these convoluted, engineering processes, these inside jobs of handing power to civilians, some share of power, but through what, we call these cohabitation arrangements. So, the military keeps its power and the civilians get its share. In Indonesia that experiment worked really, really well for the military. They were able to get rid of their guaranteed seats and everything very fast, because elections were going to people that they could live with perfectly fine. They got to get rid of the headaches of ruling and they’re perfectly comfortable with these civilian politicians. Like it was totally fine.
Myanmar did so as well. There the problem was just the level of vitriol and of distrust between the military and the NLD was such that if the NLD was going to be the civilian government, the military was going to have a very hard time holding its fire, because it hates Aung San Suu Kyi so much. It hates the NLD so much. It frankly hates most of Burmese society so much. So, the military just said, ‘We’re going to take over again.’ It would not be anything that extreme in Thailand in the sense that there’s not this divide between military and society that’s quite so extreme as it is in Myanmar today.
But certainly, the lesson of holding elections, having very, very clear results that your people got stomped, and people who want you to have a lesser role winning overwhelmingly, to just ignore that result entirely is a real recipe for a disaster. They saw a big protest in 2020. I think that they’re going to see that would pale by what would happen next. Now that being said, I think that in a weird way, I almost feel like the opposition in Thailand has gotten so accustomed to a politics of we vote for people and then they get banned by the courts that it’s almost been normalized.
So, when people talk about the prospect that Pita’s going to get banned because of these totally bogus – I mean these charges are ridiculous. It’s penny ante kind of stuff. There’s no way that you should be banning this guy from politics for this stuff. That was true of his predecessor too. People are like ‘Well, if he gets banned, then what do we do next?’ There’s a way in which people get acclimated to this kind of repression and see it as just expected. They’re not as outraged as you might think. So, it’s also possible that if Move Forward gets knee capped here by the courts, people can be very angry. But I think for a lot of people in Thailand, they’ll be like, ‘Okay, so what’s plan B? We don’t get plan A. What’s Plan B?’
That I think, shows the success from the Thai military’s perspective and the Thai monarchy’s perspective. It shows the success of their engineering efforts, like they have moderated the Thai voter. The Thai voter doesn’t expect to just vote for a party and then get all the power. They know perfectly well that’s not happening. So, Thai society, the Thai voter, has been tamed, as was Myanmar’s by decades of military rule and these gradual partial openings to democratic elections. So, the system works. It worked in Myanmar too. They just should have stuck with it.
In Thailand, I think you might say it wasn’t as good as you would’ve hoped, but basically the system is working. You’re able to have a real true election, and you’re not going to really lose that much power. So, stick with your own plan. Your plan worked. Hopefully, they won’t make the same mistake as Myanmar, which is blowing up their own plan and saying, ‘Well, let’s just go back to Civil War with everybody.’
One can only hope there’s some real caution in how much Myanmar has fallen apart. Even if Thailand wouldn’t fall apart in quite the same way, it’s not a pretty picture. The reason that Thai military guys have as much money as they do is because the Thai economy is as strong as it is. So, they don’t want to see things go to Civil War status. They have a lot more to lose than the generals in Myanmar did.
I agree that it’s very possible that the Thai voter has become normalized to the idea that parties get banned, that their votes get discounted through military action, but at the same time, when Future Forward was banned, nobody thought of them as much of a political force as Move Forward is today. There’s clearly been a shift in terms of how the Thai people think about politics and what they’re looking for out of political parties. There’s been some kind of change that this election has demonstrated. I mean, do you feel like there’s been a democratizing impulse in terms of the Thai people themselves, if not in terms of their government?
Absolutely. That’s kind of the point that I try to make by saying this was a revolutionary election. We think elections are supposed to be alternatives to revolution. The way you don’t get revolution is people can vote instead. But for people, when they don’t have sovereignty, that’s the only way they can assert revolutionary pressure, is through the vote and saying, ‘No, the military is not supreme. The monarchy is not supreme. We are supreme.’ That’s the essence of democracy. Before you need free and fair elections, you just need for the people to be sovereign in the first place and that’s what’s never happened in Thailand. So, they’re saying no more. They’re saying that we insist on being the sovereign power in this country.
That to me is what this election means and that’s just enormously important, to not just exercise your popular sovereignty, but to demand your popular sovereignty is a revolutionary act. If it gets snuffed out, it will be a counterrevolutionary act. I think people should appreciate that. It’s not just a bunch of rich people running for office and some faction’s going to win. Some factions going to lose. That really the stakes are as big as whether or not Thailand is going to develop popular sovereignty like its neighbors have or whether it’s going to remain stuck in this very strange position of a quite thriving, well off modern country with a vibrant civil society and a very strong capitalist economy, but where the monarchy and the military still won’t give up the top of the mountain.
So, your recent book made the case that countries democratize through strength as well as through weakness. Thailand has a really good economy for a developing country still. Why is it that Thailand isn’t in a better position to democratize through strength? Why does it seem that Thailand’s more likely to democratize out of weakness?
Well, it’s close call. I mean, both can happen. Certainly, a point of our book is that you’re a lot better off democratizing through strength than through weakness, so you should try to do that. I think they’ve set things up so that they can largely do that. The big issue in Thailand has always been what I said earlier, they could never generate a political party vehicle for their interests. People have just never voted for these military vehicles. They do in some numbers, but never a majority. They can’t win elections. So, it’s always the case that there’s a level of discomfort with the fact that we hold elections, we know we’re going to share a lot of power, that the civilian side of the state is going to go to people who are not really our people, and they know that.
In Indonesia, that’s not a problem. The party leaders and the military leaders are all as thick as thieves. They get along great. There’s no problem there. So, this is why that kind of victory confidence and stability confidence has been lower in Thailand despite the fact that Thailand is in an even better off place than Indonesia has certainly been so historically and certainly has much less of a radical history of social mobilization. So, on the merits there should be a lot of stability confidence and they should be very comfortable with this. But perceptions are where it’s at and power is where it’s at.
At the end of the day if they think they can get away with it then they might very well just say, ‘Take a mulligan. Do it over. We’ll hold different elections. We’ll do something. Just throw sand in the gears. Clutter it up. You know, do not let this very clear revolutionary election happen, because they don’t want a revolution and they could see this as a revolution and say, ‘We have to do this over in some way or we have to reverse this in some way. This is too much for us to accept. We can’t live with this.’
So, I don’t think it’s entirely rational. I think the rational thing to do is do what Thailand did in the late 70s, early 80s, which is to say we are going to move to an electoral system and there are plenty of politicians who we know will not undermine the foundations for Thai growth and the fact that we’re a Buddhist kingdom. We can live with this, so full speed ahead. That was the 80s and with a hiccup in 91-92, that was basically true for 25 years from the early eighties until 2006. The system worked at a level that I think any kind of rational political figure would say it worked just not necessarily a military figure This is one reason why military people shouldn’t be in politics because they just don’t think about politics in a sensible way.
So, Dan, recently I went back and I was reading some back issues of Journal of Democracy and there’s this one issue that touches on China and East Asian democracy. It’s really fascinating because at the time, 10 years ago, I think it’s 2012 or so, a lot of different writers like Larry Diamond, Francis Fukuyama, and many others were looking at East Asia, including Southeast Asia as an area to have the next big wave of democratization, the next area to really see democracy flourish. In fact, Larry Diamond in his piece, which was called “The Coming Wave” wrote, “Within a generation or so, I think it is reasonable to expect that most of East Asia will be democratic.”
Now, obviously a lot happens over 10 years. I don’t want to force any predictions and try to ask ourselves whether or not that’s going to completely come true. But I do see in Thailand that the people seem to be clamoring for democracy in a way that’s much stronger than many other places in the world. I do see places like Taiwan and Japan that have avoided populist politicians. I do see some real opportunities for democracy within East Asia and I wanted to get your sense whether or not you see some real opportunities for hope, even if it’s a little bit more distant than we’d like. If you’re starting to see that same sense that maybe there’s going to be a good wave of democratization that could go through East Asia in the future.
I agree a hundred percent. I think that democracy is Eastern as well as Western. What Japan and Taiwan and South Korea have done in the past few decades is remarkable, especially as these populist waves hit so much of the West, Europe, United States, Latin America. It’s not at all hard to imagine not very long from now that Thailand looks a lot more democratic than now. That Singapore looks a lot more democratic than now. Certainly, Hong Kong, if it was left to its own devices, would look a lot more democratic than it does if China hadn’t basically strangled the movement there. I think Vietnam is also in a position where as it gets closer to the United States and feels more threatened by China, Vietnam also could move in a liberalizing direction.
I think that Malaysia has certainly moved that way. Indonesian democracy has got its problems and it’s not fail-proof, but again, I think that there’s plenty of democratic potential. I do think what we saw in Malaysia, and I think in Thailand also, makes modernization theory look pretty good. That basically Malaysia and Thailand are places where economic development built a strong urban middle class of people who just can’t stand corruption, who just don’t want to be bossed around, who don’t want to be bullied, who want a little more freedom in their lives. I mean, Hong Kong even more so. In Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and then we see it in Singapore, there’s a rise of the middle class through economic development. I think still creates real pressures for political change.
The difficulty of authoritarian regime staying ahead of that and giving the people what they want without giving them democracy gets to be a more and more expensive and difficult proposition. That’s true in China too. The CCP is not just standing pat, preserving the status quo. They’re constantly scrambling to find ways to maintain popular support given the rate at which society is changing. So, all over East Asia, there’s enormous democratic potential and it’s there in the societies. You have these very strong states too and these strong states, when they don’t want to allow it, they don’t allow it.
So, hopefully they can think a little differently about when is the right time to reform and what’s the right way to think about democracy and that democracy very, very, very, very rarely means that the old guard loses everything. It never means that in developmental Asia and it wouldn’t mean that for China or Vietnam or for Singapore or for Thailand.
Well, Dan, thanks so much for joining me today. I want to plug the article one more time. It’s called, “Thailand’s Revolutionary Election.” It’s on journalofdemocracy.org. Thank you so much for joining me. Thank you so much for writing it.
Always fun to talk to you, Justin.
“Thailand’s Revolutionary Election” by Dan Slater at Journal of Democracy
From Development to Democracy: The Transformations of Modern Asia by Dan Slater and Joseph Wong
“What Indonesian Democracy Can Teach the World” by Dan Slater in the Journal of Democracy
Democracy Paradox Podcast
Email the show at firstname.lastname@example.org
Democracy Paradox is part of the Amazon Affiliates Program and earns commissions on items purchased from links to the Amazon website. All links are to recommended books discussed in the podcast or referenced in the blog.