Democracy Under Stress in Thaksin's Thailand
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Journal of Democracy 13.4 (2002) 112-126



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Democracy Under Stress in Thaksin's Thailand

Duncan McCargo


Thailand has often looked like an emerging democracy. While it is true that considerable political instability and numerous military interventions followed the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, by 1990 there had been no successful military coup since 1977, and Thai political scientist Chai-Anan Samudavanija felt able to write in the inaugural issue of this journal that his country was "gradually moving toward full membership of the new and larger comity of liberal democratic nations." 1 But this optimism was confounded by the February 1991 coup, which demonstrated residual military ambitions to dominate the political order. In the wake of the putsch came a popular uprising that ended with the fatal shooting of at least 50 unarmed civilians (May 1992), two new constitutions (1991 and 1997), and five general elections (March 1992, September 1992, July 1995, November 1996, and January 2001). Several of these events were setbacks for democratic change.

Writing in 1999, Suchit Bunbongkarn hailed as a virtually unqualified success the political reform process that had culminated in the promulgation of the 1997 Constitution. 2 Arguing that the onset of the Asian economic crisis in 1997 had boosted popular awareness of the need for greater democracy and good governance, he felt confident that the new institutions and procedures introduced that year would in the long run loosen the grip of money on politics and clean up the Thai political order.

Yet the rapid pace of change in Thailand makes taking a long view extremely difficult; what appear to be robust processes of political liberalization can rapidly give way to crises of democratic confidence. Coupled with the rise to power of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais," or TRT) party, the Senate and lower house [End Page 112] elections of 2000 and 2001 have transformed Thailand's political landscape, albeit not necessarily for the better.

The symbiotic relationship between business (including the rising provincial business class) and politicians has often tied elected representatives tightly to local elites and their financial interests. Tactics such as candidate-buying, vote-buying, and the corruption of government officials have enabled the commandeering of the electoral process itself. 3 Vote-buying and electoral fraud appear to have increased exponentially from the mid-1980s, swelling to colossal proportions in the 1995 and 1996 elections. 4

At the same time, dissatisfaction was also growing as voters wearied of money-based electoral politics, pervasive corruption, the poor quality of most politicians, and the subordination of policy programs to the demands of special interests. The mid-1990s witnessed the voicing of increasingly vociferous demands for reform of the political system. Yet "reform" meant different things to different people: Some saw it as a matter of strengthening technocratic competence, while others thought it should primarily mean curbing electoral abuses or increasing popular participation. In the end, the reform campaign was steered by a small, elite coalition that enlisted allies from various quarters of society and the state. The process of drafting a proposed new constitution was unusual by Thai standards, as the drafting body included representatives from each of the 76 provinces and involved extensive public consultations. Michael Connors has described the passage of the 1997 Constitution—after a messy series of compromises and over the objections of most elected politicians and numerous conservative bureaucrats—as "a tentative victory for liberalism" that testified to a generational shift among the Thai elite. 5

Key reforms included 1) the creation of a muscular Election Commission empowered to oversee voting and order reruns of flawed contests; 2) the establishment of several other new, independent bodies, including a National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), a Constitutional Court, an Administrative Court, and a National Human Rights Commission; 3) the placing of limits on legislators' ability to switch parties; and 4) a directly elected Senate. At the heart of the new scheme lay an attempt to surround politicians with institutions to control their behavior. Parliamentarians were separated into three groups: 200 elected senators who were barred...