Anti-populist coups: Thaksin, dictatorship and Thailand’s new constitution

The “Red Shirts” movement has caused large-scale political instability, but it has brought to the fore critical questions about the road to Thai democratization.

Grigoris Markou
14 September 2016

Pro-government protesters on the outskirts of Bangkok in a show of force following PM Yingluck Shinawatra's ouster, May, 2014. Vincent Thian/Press Association. All rights reserved.For some years now Thailand has been undergoing a colossal political crisis, resulting in the 2014 coup d’état, the second military coup in the past 8 years. This was triggered by the rise of populist Thaksin Shinawatra within Thai politics. Fear of his powers mobilized the middle-class, elites and military against Thaksin. Specifically, two military coups were aimed at putting an end to “Thaksin’s party”, but both failed to achieve their goal. Thai society continues to be divided, and the pro-Thaksin movement (Red Shirts) retains its strength.

Thailand’s dictatorial regime recently held a referendum on a new constitution, aimed at reasserting control over Thai politics. Thai people voted in favor of the new constitution believing that it might restore stability. However this seems far from likely while Thailand’s political processes continue to be controlled by the military. More likely, the junta’s voting system in the next elections will produce a weak coalition administration and a Senate appointed by the army.

So why did the military decide to end the rule of Thaksin’s party? What was the impact of his populism on the nature of Thailand’s political system? And what is the ultimate purpose behind the junta’s ‘New Constitution’?

Thaksin’s rise to power

The Asian economic crisis in the late twentieth century prompted many powerful men of business to turn to the management of state policies. In 1998 one of Thailand’s most successful tycoons, Thaksin Shinawatra, founded the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) and three years later managed to win the elections. Thaksin was committed to overcoming Thailand’s economic problems by developing populist policies that gave some social protection to the lower classes. Hence, he introduced programs such as virtually free health care, fuel subsidies and low-cost loans for farmers. These populist policies (interventionist economic policies that became known as Thaksinomics) improved the conditions for the poor and led him to a comfortable win in the elections of 2005. Furthermore, his powerful populist rhetoric facilitated the inclusion of under-privileged people, encouraging them to pursue their interests through mainstream political processes. Thaksin’s populist rhetoric tended to divide society into two opposing groups: on the one side, “the grassroots, the non-privileged people”, and on the other, the “elite, aristocracy and royalists” of the country.

Two military coups

Thaksin’s popularity threatened the palace and the military leadership of the country, who aspired to total control of the political landscape. At the same time the middle and the upper classes complained about his populist policies and authoritarian mode of governance. When the Thai prime minister was plunged into economic scandal, this gave pro-monarchist and nationalist forces an opportunity to get organized against Thaksin (and also against electoral democracy), under the leadership of the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD).

Thaksin was forced to call early elections, under the pressure of this political crisis. These elections were boycotted by the opposition parties. Nonetheless, under-privileged people continued to support the strong populist leader as his policies had improved their lives. So Thaksin achieved a new victory in April 2006 in elections whose results were promptly annulled by the Constitutional Court. In September 2006, Thaksin was overthrown in a coup by anti-populist royalists and banned from participating in the next elections.

In 2007, the TRT party had transformed its name to “People’s Power Party”(PPP) and once again participated in the elections. Samak Sundaravej managed to win these key elections and to form a government, but the new parliament was dissolved by the Constitutional Court on charges of fraud. The punitive decisions of the Constitutional Court and efforts by the military to eliminate Thaksin’s political party provoked the lower social classes of Thailand, and this led to the creation of a mass popular movement (United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship/ UDD). The “Red-shirts” movement continues to support Thaksin and democratic processes in the country, fighting against the conservative PAD.

After the PPP’s dissolution, the majority of party members transferred to the newly founded “Pheu Thai Party”. In the elections of 2011, Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin’s sister), became the nominee of the populist party and again won the elections. However, in the course of this, aggressive antigovernment demonstrations and the polarized political landscape led to a new political crisis which has inflicted severe collateral damage on the country. Finally, the military seized control of Thailand in 2014 to thwart a populist movement that has won every national election since 2001. This coup was the twelfth military takeover since the Asian country abandoned absolute monarchy in 1932.

The impact of Thaksin’s populism on the political system

Thaksin’s populist discourse has deeply influenced the character of the political system and Thailand’s democracy, both negatively and positively. On the one side, Thaksin’s authoritarian mode of governance created a huge rift in the political system, while his party benefited from the constitutional provisions designed to strengthen the prime minister’s hand and to create more stable governments. Alongside this, several government decisions seemed to directly benefit Thaksin’s family business (his own family wealth tripled over his four year term). Moreover, the populist rhetoric that divided society into two huge opposing camps (red and yellows) produced acute social polarization. According to Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker, Thaksin’s government “controlled the media, harassed civil society, and used state violence in ways that recalled Thailand’s past military dictators”.

On the other hand, Thaksin’s policies have managed to convince the majority of society, and to elicit sustained loyalty mainly from the lower social classes – farmers and the underprivileged. Thaksin’s populism was a response to the democratic demands of the poor people for a better life. His politics fought against the monarchy, undermining the traditional ability of the middle and upper classes to dominate politics (business persons, bureaucrats etc.). Finally, the forcible removal of Thaksin from power created a mass movement instilled with democratic ideas, which fights against the undemocratic movement PAD and the military. The “Red Shirts” movement has caused large-scale political instability, but it has brought to the fore critical questions about the road to Thai democratization.

Thai Junta’s new constitution

The dictatorship that was established by General Prayut Chan-o-cha tried to stamp out Thaksin’s populist party. Nonetheless, the strong mass movement of “Red shirts” seems to retain its strength. This profoundly worries the military leaders and the monarchy. Thus, the military regime has decided to organize a referendum on a new constitution, which is guaranteed to create a new undemocratic political system. This political system will be directly steered by military rule to ensure that no chance is given to any populist political party hoping to emerge in the future. As we see it, the two recent coups were the first attempt to dissolve the populist forces and the new constitution is the second attempt. Will the military leaders achieve their goal? Is this the end of populism in Thailand?

Further reading

Grigoris Markou & Phanuwat Lasote, “Democracy and Populism in Asia: The case of Thaksin in Thailand, Intersections, Fall Edition, Washington, 2015

Chris Baker & Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 262-263.

Chris Baker & Pasuk Phongpaichit, “Thaksin’s Populism”, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 38, No. 1, February 2008

Pasuk Phongpaichit & Chris Baker, Thaksin: The Business of Politics in Thailand, NIAS, Copenhagen

“5 Things to Know About Thailand’s Constitutional Referendum”, Wall Street Journal

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