Written by Carlo Bonura.

Reflecting on Thailand’s political crisis over the last two months, many foreign observers have questioned the democratic credentials of the protest movement opposed to the powerful political influence of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.  In one remarkable instance in January 2014, journalist John Sparks from the UK’s Channel 4 interviewed protest leader Dr Seri Wongmontha live onstage at one of the massive rallies in Bangkok.  In response to seemingly uncomplicated questions such as “Why not go to the people in a democratic election and put those points to them? Let them decide in an open election,” Seri became animated, making the case that Thailand was not a democracy but a “parliamentary dictatorship.”  Sparks had the last word on his blog after the dramatic interview when he claimed that the opposition’s plans to restructure Thai political society and expunge Thaksin’s influence once and for all “might sound a little bit ‘previous century’ to some – when one-party states, with their own non-elected councils, looked after themselves in the name of their own people.”

The backwardness implied by Sparks’ commentary is a commonplace conclusion for those who view the current political crisis in Thailand strictly as a matter of democratic elections.  It is critical, however, to situate Thailand’s current crisis in the context of the intense polarisation that has affected Thai politics over the last decade.  The on-going battle for power in Thailand is a battle between two political establishments: the old establishment (an alignment of the military, courts, civil service, Democrat Party and the Palace) and a new establishment (which includes Thaksin’s powerful electoral machine, the police, elements within the military, and the ruling Pheu Thai Party).  Each of these establishments has corresponding protest movements.  In the case of the old establishment, the People’s Democratic Reform (PDRC) is the latest manifestation of a wide array of what could be called the “yellow street,” referring to the previous practice of anti-Thaksin protesters wearing yellow shirts.  Whereas in contrast, Thaksin and subsequent Thaksin-aligned governments have depended on the power of the “red street” in the form of the United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship and their “red shirt” supporters.

In the last ten years, mass mobilisations have emerged as a means to challenge institutional political authority in Thailand, whether this authority is the legitimacy of elected governments or the power of political establishments.  This longstanding polarisation and the durability mass mobilisations have had the effect of producing a series of intractable political crises that raise the question of the quality of Thai democratisation more generally.  The prospect of military and judicial coups makes these questions more urgent especially within Thailand.  However, rather than looking at Thai crises through the lens of democracy and democratisation – which are inevitably defined in liberal terms – it is more meaningful to see these crises as a sustained conflict over the very foundations of political community (or what can be called “the political”) in Thai politics: namely, what forms of legitimacy should be the basis for political authority? How are certain forms of citizenship privileged?  And how is the idea of representation itself politically contested?

Viewing Thailand’s electoral politics in terms of liberal democracy (however this might be defined) encounters two problems:

  1. Elections since 2001 have regularly resulted in ruling coalitions based on absolute majorities.
  2. There is an unresolvable dilemma of representation posed by mass mobilizations.  These protests are said to represent the will of the “Thai people” yet the immense political pressure these protests exert cannot be accounted for in liberal definitions of democratic legitimacy.

In the case of the recent crisis, the protests organized by the PDRC and other aligned groups are not only opposing an elected government but have actively disrupted the recent elections to parliament.  Moreover, the leadership of the PDRC and past anti-Thaksin movements have publically argued for “democratic” systems determined by elites within political society (and only partially based on popular elections).  Thus, within liberal terms the recurring faults of Thai “democracy” are its lack of electoral competitiveness resulting in autocracy and the ambivalent legitimacy of its rival protest movements.

The fact that protest leadership and the leadership of the Democrat Party have rejected elections as an option for resolving this current crisis has been viewed as hypocritical by their opponents in Thailand and also by some foreign commentators.  The hypocrisy of the election boycott or visions of elite democracy (in which elections would play a small role) is not symptomatic of an opposition that fails to grasp the basic principles of democracy. Instead, these strategies (rather than hypocrisies) reflect an intense political struggle in which electoral democracy is only one field on which the battle is fought for the authority to define the boundaries of Thailand’s national political community.

The problem for liberal democratic approaches to mass mobilizations is that such movements contain a kernel of legitimacy that should not be suppressed; they give voice to a “people” that claims to be “the people.”  But what the current mobilizations manifest is not a claim to legitimacy, but precisely a claim to the political, to a logic of us versus them, to the exclusion of certain political visions, as well as the exclusion of opposing elites, groups, or movements.  In fact, this is most clear in the demand by the anti-Thaksin opposition that what they are really opposed to is not the Yingluck government, but the entire “Thaksin system” or regime.  Any opposition claim that the current government is illegitimate is actually shorthand for the political claim that the Thaksin system must be abolished entirely.

Describing the dysfunction of Thai democracy in liberal terms of representation or mandates cannot account for these explicitly political dynamics.  The cyclical crises that have marked the last decade in Thailand are essentially crises of political community not of electoral democracy.  Neither side in the on-going standoff between old and new political establishments is a champion for liberal democracy.  Rather than interpreting contemporary Thai politics in terms of its lack of liberalism, a focus on the intractable crisis of political community allows us to see the connections between the impasse of electoral politics, the power of mass mobilizations, the potential for military or judicial intervention, and the overarching competition between Thailand’s political establishments.

Carlo Bonura is a Senior Teaching Fellow in Southeast Asian Politics at the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS), University of London.  He received his PhD. from the University of Washington in political science, and his research spans the fields of comparative political thought and Southeast Asian politics.