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Thitinan Pongsudhirak
Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Asian Opinions

The two faces of Thai authoritarianism

The Straits Times | Thitinan Pongsudhirak | Friday, Sep 12, 2014

Thai politics has completed a dramatic turn.

From the electoral authoritarianism under deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001-06, it has become a virtual military government under General Prayuth Chan-ocha today.

These two sides of the authoritarian coin - electoral and military - represent Thailand's painful learning curve in political development.

The most daunting challenge for the country is not to end up with one or the other, but to come up with a hybrid that combines electoral sources of legitimacy for democratic rule and some measure of moral authority and integrity that have been found wanting among elected officials.

A long view is necessary to come to terms with Thailand's long crisis.

One portrait of Thailand being painted is that of a society which saw the contentious rise in power of a few, to a pluralistic rule by the many. The latter heralded an era of mass politics in the 21st century no longer dictated by traditional power brokers such as the monarchy, but is, at the same time, susceptible to abuse and manipulation by newly vested power holders.

It is a story of Thai democracy that dates back a century, perhaps to the 1912 rebellion by young army officers against feudal absolutism.

That Thailand has seen democratic rule cannot be denied. But it is the nature of Thai polity that such rule will be resisted as long as there is no new balance to bridge the old order and new power arrangements. And even when a government is democratically elected, like Thaksin's, its nature can be extremely authoritarian.

Democratic, but authoritarian

This was where the pendulum had been in the past decade.

A decade ago, Thaksin was pre-eminent in Thailand.

He had earlier squeaked through an assets concealment trial on a narrow and dodgy vote after leading his party to a dominant position in the January 2001 election, the first under Thailand's much-vaunted 1997 Constitution. His party later formed a coalition government.

A consummate politician and former police officer, who hailed from a new capitalist group that exploited a giddy stock market to generate great wealth from a vast telecommunications conglomerate, Thaksin benefited from extensive networks in business and bureaucracy, including the police and army.

In politics, his Thai Rak Thai party became a juggernaut. Its architects came up with a popular policy platform that featured affordable universal health care, debt relief and microcredit schemes. It won over most of the upcountry electorate and even the majority of Bangkok at the time. Thai Rak Thai also absorbed smaller parties and virtually monopolised party politics in the absence of a strong opposition.

Thaksin penetrated and captured what were designed as independent agencies to promote accountability, particularly the Constitutional Court, the Election Commission and the anti-corruption commission.

His confidants and loyalists found their way into steering these agencies. His cousin, at one point, became the army's commander-in-chief. His police cohorts naturally were fast-tracked to senior positions, including his brother-in-law, who skipped the queue and lined up to be national police chief.

Similarly, Thaksin's business allies and associated partners secured plum concessions and choice government procurement projects. After his landslide victory in February 2005, including the capture of 32 out of 37 MP seats in Bangkok, he also became the first prime minister to be re-elected and to preside over a one-party government.

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