A Plot Twist in Thai Political History

The recent election in Thailand is a sign of optimism – perhaps not hope, but optimism at least. Worldwide, the doom-like specter of totalitarianism looms large. In some countries the fear is authoritarianism. In predominantly Western societies totalitarianism threatens in the tendencies of Mass Society – the corporate-government-media class of ruling authorities that dominate not only the products we buy but also the available possibilities of political leadership and media to be consumed. In other words, totalitarian systems control the platforms of material well-being, governance, and of knowledge. If we look to understand the recent Thai election, one may look at the results of the election as a rejection of authoritarianism because of the rejection of the military government and the criticism of the lese majeste law, which forbids criticism of the monarchy. This is, in fact, the predominant interpretation by more conservative Thais – like my mother-in-law. However, what may have gone unnoticed is the political agenda of the Move Forward Party, headed by the likely new Prime Minister – a man named Pita.  The political agenda is what is commonly known as “3D” – de-militarization, de-monopolization, and de-centralization. Unlike the previously polarized history of Thai politics, this election does not pit the populist, but notoriously lacking-in-principle, “red shirts” vs the military-backed and elitist “yellow shirts”; this election represents a principled political decision. It is about who has agency – the military or the people. That’s why 3D matters, and we will return to it below.  

The Event – the 2023 Thai Election

The existing military government, which has been in power via a coup d’etat since 2014, had appointed 250 senators who get to contribute their votes with the 500 elected representatives of the lower house to choose the next Prime Minister. Since these senators were appointed by the existing military-backed Prime Minister, by the name of Prayut, it was exceedingly difficult for one party to oust the incumbent. If the senators cast their vote with Prayut, the number of seats a single, non-military-backed, party must have is nearly impossible to achieve. No other change of power could happen unless a stable coalition formed a “minority government.” (A minority government is common in parliamentary democracies like the UK, Canada, and … well, Thailand, and means that a coalition of parties works together to form a majority; the coalition is headed by the party that won the most seats.) Well, Move Forward did just that, and while the coalition does not have enough numbers to overcome the numbers of the elected representatives + the senators that are aligned with the military, they have a clear majority of a wide swath of Thai society – more than 300 of the 500 seats in the lower house. Why? Move Forward had the voting support of not just educated young people, but also the middle class, the poorer rural population (particularly in the Northeast of the country), and the urban poor and upper middle class in larger urban centers like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Beyond this, and perhaps most importantly, they have the support of the populist Puea Thai Party, which formed the main opposition to the military government for more than a decade. The Puea Thai Party (formerly known as the “red shirts”) is the other main coalition partner of Move Forward having received the second-highest number of seats.  

What Changed?

In Thailand, I believe something radical has happened. Instead of aligning themselves with particular interests that were common among yellow and red shirts, they have instead made a political choice based on principle – a principle of who has agency. Instead of Thais seeing themselves as primarily of one class or another, they are beginning to see themselves as a group of people who has the agency required for self-determination.  But this requires that the government hands its power back to the people and that they are capable of dealing with lots of murky issues.

You see, there are many causes or “Origins” of totalitarianism, but one constant is that totalitarian governments emerge because they fill a need, and do so better than non-totalitarian governments. The primary need totalitarianism satisfies is the need for meaning. In a world plagued by loneliness and the loss of purpose, totalitarian regimes offer the masses membership in a movement and a cause; they provide coherent fantasies of national or racial greatness that are more adequate to the human desire for a meaningful life than is the actual ambiguity of our world. And just as the authoritarianism of Thailand’s military government fulfills a need, so too did its populist expressions. The rise of populist dictatorships around the world today suggests that populism is filling a need that is not being met by democratic and liberal governments. While fantasies of national belonging are part of the populist playbook, so too is the basic desire for a strongman to take care of us. The red shirts had been clearly susceptible to the strongman inspiration of Thaksin Shinawatra.

Demilitarization, Demonopolization, and Decentralization

The Move Forward’s political agenda of demilitarization, de-monopolization, and decentralization (3D) is thus key to an understanding of what is different in Thai politics. It represents a key wish of the Thai people – that adult Thai citizens are the building blocks of a constituted Thai society, instead of the military, monopolies, and a Bangkok gravity. But the program is ambitious… and contentious.

Demilitarization – There are two key features of Move Forward’s policy in this regard. The first is that the military should no longer constitute the government. The military should be in service of the government and the King. The second is the end of conscription-by-lottery (CBL).  CBL is the system in which young men, aged 18 – 30, are gathered (district-by-district) to report to a lottery in which names are drawn for who will serve in the Thai military for a 2-year period – and this was applicable to these men whether they resided in Thailand or not. This is similar to other Asian countries, like South Korea, which has mandatory military service as well. The uniqueness of the Thai CBL system was that there were two ways to get out of it: either by serving as cadets in high school (much easier than serving in the regular military) or by bribe (and the going rate is $1200 US give or take). The bribe option is feasible to the upper middle class resulting in the poorest Thais largely populating the lower ranks of the military. This bribe system was corrupted, and a huge source of extra income for the captain-major-lieutenant colonel class of soldiers. Move Forward has promised to eliminate both CBL and a military-controlled government. Thais have understood these two institutions as undermining their agency as citizens. It represents the opposition to the one kind of prominent totalitarian control mentioned earlier – that of authoritarianism.

Demonopolization    

The other form of totalitarianism that does not really make the news so much is the tendency toward monopolization that exists in Thai society. This has gone on for years and it is evidence that the military has not only had control because they have the guns, but because they have the support of Thailand’s largest monopolies. These companies have practiced monopolies against explicit anti-trust laws, but have never been forced by the legislation to comply. This includes the agrifood business with CP foods, private healthcare, and in telecommunications. Inflation, which is a global problem bigger than Thai monopolies, has been an enemy too powerful for the monopolies to combat – and Thai citizens recognize it. Thus, they are asserting their agency. But they can’t do so without significant resistance, and in this case, it is a military-corporate alliance that looks like the totalitarian force of what I have called Mass Society. If Move Forward is going to achieve an agenda of de-monopolization, this may have a larger impact than just in Thailand.

Decentralization

Briefly, the incredible bureaucracy of the Thai military government leaves many issues that affect Thai citizens left hanging – Thais just can’t seem to get things done. Move Forward seeks to decentralize the Thai government so that it can act more nimbly, and also to operate in a more cost-efficient way. Thais have long understood their government to be cumbersome, with many opportunities for corrupted processes. Decentralization is necessary to bring significance back to local agency.

Conclusion

Some important things hang in the balance.

  • The Prime Minister is not yet elected (it will happen 60 days after the May 14 election) and if blocked would be commonly understood as the responsibility of Thai senators who lack political legitimacy.
  • There is an ingrained cooperation between the military and corporate monopolies that will act as an obstacle to Thai political reform.
  • There is an ingrained bureaucracy that will resist efforts to streamline.

Some very important things hang in the balance – but something new has also entered the discussion. Thais have begun to assert their own agency and their agency is not merely class-based. It is agency on principle, and going against this principle is bound to be greeted with significant violence. But respecting the Thai citizen agency will lead to an uncertain but freer future.

2 thoughts on “The 2023 Thai Election: Agency… for Agency

  1. Interesting perspective on Thai politics. I wish I shared optimism that the new party will be truly democratic and will be able to make long lasting changes in the political systems. have been following Thai politics since 1964 and my family is close to I think the only socialist elected Thai MP who worked tirelessly for a more democratic country. He recently died at the age of 100. I expect the oligarchs and military who control much of the wealth will be quick to ensure their power remains. Hopefully it will be bloodless but having witness a number of coups in Thailand, I worry.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s