Thailand’s voters — especially its young people — have sent the country’s junta a message: They want change now. But will the military listen?
By Dan Slater
Thailand’s people have spoken — but Thailand’s people are not sovereign. It is always the Thai military and monarchy that reserves the right to decide who will rule, and how much, if any, power they will share with the people’s elected representatives. While the Southeast Asian kingdom has cycled unpredictably between electoral democracy and outright military rule for the past fifty years, what never changes is the supremacy of the military and monarchy in Thai political life.
Could that finally be changing now? The biggest message from Monday’s parliamentary election is that a solid majority of Thai voters very much want it to change. Fueled by a surge in youth participation and following on the heels of massive urban protests against military rule in 2020, Thai voters delivered a thumping majority of seats in the House of Representatives to the two parties that openly challenged the political supremacy of the military and the monarchy. Pheu Thai, led by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s 36-year-old daughter Paetongtarn, won an estimated 141 of 500 seats. Move Forward, the upstart progressive party fronted by 42-year-old businessman Pita Limjaroenrat, shocked the world by surpassing Pheu Thai and winning an estimated 151 seats. Youth is rarely served in any election, anywhere — this election was a gigantic exception.
The two opposition parties quickly announced their plan to form a coalition, presumably with Pita as prime minister. The most immediate obstacle to this plan is Thailand’s unelected 250-member Senate, which can dilute and defeat the new coalition’s majority: 292 is a huge majority out of 500, but not out of 750. A pro-junta and pro-royalist majority could still be assembled between the Senate and various small parties in the House. Another looming obstacle is Thailand’s courts, which could well disqualify Pita personally or even disband Move Forward as an illegal party for some minor or imagined infraction. This was the fate of Move Forward’s predecessor party as well as Pheu Thai’s multiple predecessors, including Thaksin’s original electoral juggernaut, Thai Rak Thai.
Kings or People
Elections are supposed to be alternatives to revolution, not occasions for revolution. Popular unrest gets channeled into peaceful participation. Protesting collectives get transformed into pacified individual voters. But this nonrevolutionary quality of elections presupposes that voters have already gained popular sovereignty and are merely exercising powers already secured at the polls. The thorniest problem in Thai politics is that Thai voters have never won popular sovereignty. So by voting in droves for the leading parties opposing royal-military supremacy, Thailand’s people are not exercising their popular sovereignty; they are demanding it.
This is nothing less than a revolutionary act in the Thai historical context. Its revolutionary character should be appreciated even as the many obstacles to its fulfillment must be cataloged. The conflict between popular sovereignty and royal sovereignty, or what Reinhard Bendix memorably called the historical dilemma of “Kings or People,” has long since been resolved in most countries, especially those with a long history of popular elections; but not in Thailand.
By leading the nation’s modernization and fending off formal European colonialism in the late nineteenth century, Thailand’s Chakri dynasty claimed its place at the pinnacle of Thai politics. The absolute monarchy was forcibly overthrown in 1932, but by the Thai military rather than the Thai people. Rather than bequeathing the sovereignty it had seized to the Thai people, the military has kept it for itself and its key ally, the monarchy. Whenever the Thai people have risen up to overthrow especially noxious military dictators, as in 1973 and 1992, they have done so with the monarchy’s blessing, and without undermining the royal-military alliance. The result has been several bouts of electoral democracy, but no shift from royal sovereignty to popular sovereignty.
The Military Menace
It would be a mistake to see the threat posed by Move Forward and Pheu Thai to this ruling alliance in the policies they propose. When Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai government was toppled in the military coup of 2006, observers looked to his populist and rurally targeted economic policies for clues to his unacceptability among Bangkok’s power elite. Similarly, it is policy stances such as Pheu Thai’s call to end mandatory military conscription and Move Forward’s agenda to liberalize Thailand’s oppressive lèse-majesté laws that are painted as direct threats to royal-military supremacy.
But the reality is far simpler — and scarier. 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. The royal-military alliance commands Thai politics and decides how big of a subservient role elected politicians will be permitted to play. For a civilian political party like Thai Rak Thai and a civilian leader like Thaksin to become a more important power center in Thai politics than the military and monarchy was utterly unacceptable. The worry wasn’t that Thaksin might someday declare a de jure civilian republic, but that he was already well on his way to establishing a de facto civilian republic.
This phenomenon is mirrored in neighboring Burma. The military did not pull the plug on its decade-long power-sharing arrangement with Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularly elected National League for Democracy (NLD) in its 2021 coup because of any anger or fear over how they might use their power, but because the NLD’s popular power was undermining military supremacy. Anywhere the military is the supreme organization in national politics, it poses a menace to the country’s democratic fortunes. When the military practices its supremacy in tandem with a monarchy as in Thailand, tapping into the symbolic authority such an alliance can provide, its resistance to any transition to popular sovereignty can be even harder to break.
Bracing for the Aftershocks
Considering this long history of conflict between the principles of royal-military sovereignty and popular sovereignty in Thai politics, the impending impasse is not so much a sudden collision course created by a single shocking election. It is more like the gradual, readily explicable grinding of tectonic plates. The fault-lines are all too familiar to actors on both sides of the political divide. Move Forward’s enormous electoral leap forward was stunning from the perspective of recent opinion polls; but the juxtaposition of a popularly elected majority trying to wrest popular sovereignty from the claws of a resistant royal-military oligarchy is a tale as old as Thailand.
Yet this revolutionary election has also moved Thailand into uncharted waters in several ways. One is the resounding victory for young voters and the resounding defeat for the royal-military alliance in urban areas. It is familiar territory for the Thai military to fail at generating much electoral support for its chosen party vehicles, but the absolute wipeout it has suffered in urban and youthful circles sends an especially powerful signal of popular discontent. It is typical Thai practice to try to salvage as good of a coalitional result as possible for the military and monarchy from elections. But this time the defeat is so crushing and the ruling elite’s loss of support so devastating, it will be a very hard result to finesse, much less reject. They need only look next door to Burma to see how bad things can get when a military ignores democratic elections and tries to rule without any meaningful support in cities and among the young.
The other new element is that Thailand’s party opposition is not only strengthening, but multiplying. For the past two decades, oppositional power has come in one color only: the red of Pheu Thai. It was the unprecedented ability of Thailand’s “reds” to win outright electoral majorities that made it such an unacceptable challenger. But now the red wave has been joined and even overtaken, at least for the moment, by Move Forward’s orange tide. Since Move Forward is more openly radical than Pheu Thai in its antimilitary and antiroyalist stances, its ascendancy might make the ruling elite even more resistant to accepting these latest election results. Or, since Pheu Thai is no longer so powerful and popular as to threaten to make the Thaksin family a new “royal family,” these results might be easier to live with than elections when the “reds” dominated on their own.
What is certain is that this election was the equivalent of an earthquake along Thailand’s enduring royalist-popular political divide. Aftershocks are now coming, and we should brace ourselves accordingly.
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.
Copyright © 2023 National Endowment for Democracy
Image Credit: Brickinfo Media/Shutterstock.com