Thailand has paid a big price for the inability of its conservative elites to come to terms with the populist challenge to their dominance that emerged during the prime ministership of Thaksin Shinawatra from 2001 to 2006.
Two military coups, three constitutions and four general elections down the line, Thaksinist populism is still a formidable political force. Efforts by the leaders of the 2006 military coup that ousted Thaksin failed to prevent a comeback for the Pheu Thai party — successor to his banned Thai Rak Thai — in the 2011 elections. His sister Yingluck was likewise ejected in a military coup in 2014 after her government’s wasteful rice-buying scheme became a national scandal.
After that 2014 coup, anti-Thaksin forces held off the threat of Pheu Thai, and a resurgent liberal anti-junta movement embodied in the Future Forward Party, with a combination of an electoral system stacked in the junta’s favour and persistent ‘lawfare’ against opponents.
Yet as Greg Raymond highlights in this week’s lead article, an underappreciated ingredient in the political staying power of the 2014 coup leaders under the prime ministership of Prayut Chan-o-cha was that many Pheu Thai supporters, weary of the conflict of the post-2006 period, ‘chose what they saw as stability in the form of the military proxy party Palang Pracharat’ at the last general election in 2019.
The big question, Raymond writes, is whether these voters will come home to Pheu Thai when Thais vote once again on 14 May. ‘Pheu Thai’s electoral prospects are … strengthened by the disarray on the conservative side’. With the economic hangover of the pandemic in many voters’ minds, ‘the deep collective memory of Pheu Thai as the party of economic growth and wealth redistribution places it in a good position to return to government’.
Still, Raymond cautions that a Pheu Thai victory isn’t assured. Despite big polling leads for the party, there are uncertainties about the accuracy of those surveys and how voting patterns are filtered through Thailand’s mixed-member electoral system. There is still room for an unexpectedly good showing by military proxy parties. In any case, it might not matter: there are plenty of deliberately-laid legal booby traps that could allow the incumbent government — and, of course, the royal palace — a de facto veto over the formation of a government after the election.
Given these uncertainties, speculation about possible post-election coalition configurations has been building. Last year we wondered whether ‘Thailand’s best shot at post-election stability would be an unlikely deal for power sharing between the military, the monarchy, and the Thaksin camp’. It’s significant that, as Raymond notes, ‘Pheu Thai have not ruled out going into coalition with Palang Pracharat, meaning that the clear distinction between the so-called “democratic” and “authoritarian” sides that was present after the 2019 election may dissolve’.
We shall find out on election day. If such a détente were to emerge in Thailand, it would be of a piece with developments elsewhere in Southeast Asia’s more democratic states, where the cohabitation of reformers and their conservative opponents has underpinned stability in fluid political environments and allowed some breathing space to implement reforms.
In Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim’s government is propped up by a Faustian bargain the reformasi icon made with UMNO, despite the voters’ repudiation of it after years of corruption scandals. Anwar’s civil society allies now have to grit their teeth and accept sharing power with the former ruling party as the price of keeping the Pakatan Harapan government in power, and a chance of slowly progressing the institutional reforms that Malaysia needs.
It will be years before it becomes clear whether a democratic ‘new normal’ emerges in Malaysia, but if it does, it will have followed in the footsteps of Indonesia, where a culture of power-sharing across political factions — and even across some deep and abiding ideological divides — has compromised accountability but nonetheless gives all the players a stake in maintaining the competitiveness and openness of the system by lowering the stakes of losing elections.
In Thailand, by contrast, the perceived stakes of electoral loss are high — especially for the conservatives and royalists who have played a spoiler role when they didn’t get their way in the past. As Raymond warns, ‘[i]f Pheu Thai returns, then sadly the seeds for the next coup, either military or judicial, may have already been sown’, perpetuating what Thais call ‘wongchon ubat, the evil cycle in which Thailand oscillates between popularly elected governments and military dictatorships’. Some kind of begrudging cohabitation of Thaksinist forces in government with their long-time adversaries might not be the worst outcome for Thailand, if the post-14 May landscape allows for it.
Whatever political compromises it takes, some formula that can give the key players a stake in allowing a duly elected government to govern is the sine qua non of the emergence of a durable electoral democracy. And, with luck, what will emerge is a political system where different political blocs compete on their visions of the policy goals in the service of which political power might be exercised — rather than who has the right to hold political power in the first place.