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  • Thailand: Toward Democratic Stability
  • Daniel King (bio) and Jim LoGerfo (bio)

In July 1995, Thailand held its second set of parliamentary elections since the country’s most recent transition to democracy in May 1992, when massive protests forced the military-backed government of General Suchinda Kraprayoon out of power and pushed parliament to democratize the constitution. In the July 1995 elections, a new coalition led by the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party ousted the government headed by the Democrat Party of then-Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, and Chart Thai leader Banhan Silpa-archa became Thailand’s twenty-first prime minister. Was this peaceful transfer of power a sign that, in the three years since the political transition, democracy has been consolidated in Thailand?

According to the editors of one comparative study of democratization, a democratic regime is consolidated “when all politically significant groups regard its key political institutions as the only legitimate framework for political contestation, and adhere to democratic rules of the game.” 1 In Thailand, the process of democratic consolidation seems well under way. Between May 1992 and July 1995, no important antisystem political parties or social movements emerged, and there were no calls from the armed forces, the capitalist class, the mass media, the universities, labor, or other social groups for the imposition of authoritarian rule. During the September 1992 and July 1995 parliamentary elections, as during the period between them, the military remained largely on the political sidelines, politicians mostly respected democratic procedures, and social groups pressed their demands and processed their conflicts in accord with the constitution and without “knocking on the barracks door.” On the level of institutions, however, the weakness of [End Page 102] parliament and of the party system continues to restrict political accountability and representativeness.

Stable, consolidated democracy has long eluded Thailand. When a group of junior army and navy officers and civil servants overthrew the absolute monarchy in June 1932, they proclaimed the establishment of the first democratic regime in Thai political history. The system they created, however, was democratic more in form than in content, and it soon gave way to military-based rule. Such would be the fate of many subsequent democratic regimes. Since 1932 there have been nine successful coups and seven failed attempts. The frequent transitions to and from authoritarian rule typically involved the promulgation of a new constitution; the present charter is Thailand’s fifteenth. Not surprisingly, this lack of political continuity has hindered the institutionalization of the party system. The typical Thai political party lacks a mass base, a well-articulated organization, and, indeed, any identifiable ideology. 2 Instead, parties form around personal ties and the dispensation of machine-style patronage, in keeping with a social structure based largely on patron-client networks. Thus the primary features of the Thai political system have been military intervention in politics, the struggle between military officers and civilian politicians over the division of power and spoils, and the weakness of political institutions.

Thai political history since the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932 can be divided into five periods: 1932–73, 1973–76, 1976–91, 1991–92, and 1992 to the present. Although the process of change has been uneven and discontinuous, the overall trends have been toward a declining political role for the military, a correspondingly more important place for parliament in the political process, growing identification of political parties with particular regions and constituencies along with continued party-system fragmentation and a lack of differentiation among party platforms, and an increasingly well developed and assertive civil society.

Between 1932 and 1973, Thailand’s political system was at best semidemocratic. The breakthrough to mass political participation occurred in October 1973, when student-led demonstrations for a permanent constitution brought down a corrupt and unpopular military dictatorship. Yet the proliferation of parties after 1973 made parliamentary governance highly precarious, and the turmoil that accompanied democratic rule led many Thais to welcome the “restoration of order” promised by the military coup staged on 6 October 1976. The coup reestablished the preeminence of the armed forces over parliament, the party system, and civil society. But the government installed in its aftermath proved too reactionary even for the armed...