Written by Thomas Pepinsky.
Thailand’s political crisis shows no signs of abating in the wake of its recent elections. Careful analyses by longtime observers such as Duncan McCargo and Thongchai Winichakul remind us that the main axis of conflict is between conservative, Bangkok-centered interests and the newly assertive voters of the provinces. Many issues are implicated in this conflict: the monarchy, the military, the judiciary, elite corruption, regional inequality, popular voice, and the fruits of development in a changing Thailand.
However, it is also possible to view the Thai political crisis in more abstract terms by focusing on the opposition’s boycott of the February 2 elections and what it reveals about the state of democracy in Thailand. This does not mean ignoring the substantive political conflict described by McCargo, Thongchai, and others: that is integral to what follows, as should be clear. Nevertheless, focusing on the boycotts as what I have recently described as procedural politics brings into sharp relief the good, the bad, and the ugly of contemporary Thai politics.
By “procedural politics” I mean that the boycott is not a statement about the policies and priorities of Yingluck Shinawatra and Pheu Thai. It is a statement about the procedures through which Thailand picks its leaders. It is fairly evident that in any democratic election the majority of the votes will go to Pheu Thai, meaning that the Democrat Party will once again lose. The only response for an opposition that wishes to reclaim office is to reject the election procedures that allow Pheu Thai to win, or to insist that these procedures be modified in such a way that allows them to circumvent what appears to be the majority of Thai voters’ demands. Suthep Thaugsuban’s idea of an unelected People’s Council—which sounds so bizarre to most foreign observers, and recalls the anti-democratic “functional group representatives” of Indonesia under Sukarno and Suharto—reflects exactly this.
There are good reasons to think that procedural politics weighs heavily on the minds of both sides of the Thai political divide. After all, Thailand has written many constitutions since 1932. And as Joel Selway has convincingly demonstrated, electoral rules can have truly transformative effects on policymaking in Thailand that affect the daily lives of millions of voters.
If my description of the election boycott as procedural politics is accurate, then that is both good news and bad news for electoral democracy in Thailand. The good news might not be obvious, but here it is: the very occurrence of an election boycott means that democratic elections are deeply important to the Thai people and the Thai political establishment. The irony of boycotting elections to send a signal to the incumbent government is that this signal can only carry meaning if it is recognized that elections ought to be respected, that they ought to be meaningful ways of aggregating popular preferences about the shape of Thai politics. Think about it counterfactually: if no one thought that elections were supposed to be reflect the popular will, then who would care that an aggrieved opposition has boycotted them? The only cost would be the disruption of daily life in Bangkok.
That is the good news, but the bad news is probably worse for Thailand’s electoral democracy. When politicians put procedures themselves on the table, then all bets are off for an orderly resolution of political conflict. A complete argument might draw on a branch of political economics known as social choice theory, but the approximate intuition can be stated as follows: if there are a multitude of dimensions of political conflict—not just whatever Pheu Thai might implement, but also how Thais choose their leaders—and if some people prefer order without democracy even if that means that they have to sacrifice their preferred policies, then there are few limits on the strategies that various groups and factions might adopt in securing their interests.
In fact, the clearest “solutions” to Thailand’s political crisis are to reduce the number of axes of political conflict or to impose a minority’s preferences. The former amounts to decreeing that procedural politics is no longer subject to debate (which is unlikely), and the latter amounts to abandoning the goal of representative elections (which is undesirable for Thailand’s democrats). If my portrayal of Thai politics is accurate, then the country faces an uncertain road ahead, with no end to the nearly decade-long political crisis in sight.
This is the ugly face of Thailand’s procedural politics. Dan Slater has recently described the phenomenon that Thailand is experiencing as “democratic careening.” The image to keep in mind is not of a car running out of control, but rather a game of table tennis played by two uncertain players. The ball is Thai democracy, and it heads back and forth across the table, with each player putting Thai democracy on her preferred trajectory until the opponent intervenes. But this is a delicate game, and the slightest error by either player could leave Thailand careening in unexpected directions, far from the table of play.