It’s Antonin Scalia’s nightmare. Challenged over the past decade by the rise of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the first Thai leader to unite the rural poor and challenge entrenched elites, those elites – the military, Bangkok businesspeople, the monarchy – have fought back, using a unique weapon. Thailand has in many ways become what some observers are calling a “judiocracy”: Powerful judges, egged on by the crown, deliver verdicts designed to cripple Thaksin and his supporters, and keep the elites in power.
The rise of the judiocracy started in the mid-2000s, around the time that Thaksin was pushed out in a coup. Thailand’s revered king, Bhumibhol Adulyadej, is theoretically a constitutional monarch, but in reality he plays a powerful behind-the-scenes role in Thai politics. But the king is elderly, and ailing, and the palace seems to be seeking ways to perpetuate elite control. On at least two occasions, he has called on Thailand’s judges to make decisions with “righteousness,” a kind of code for activist judges finding on behalf of elites. As Thai politics observer Shawn Crispin notes, “The high courts and judges assume the role the monarchy has traditionally played in mediating the country’s complex and often heated political disputes.” In other words, making sure the power of the masses, who have enough votes to elect populists like Thaksin, is diluted.
In the past five years the judiocracy has barred one of Thaksin’s allies from politics for hosting a televised cooking show (supposedly a conflict of interest), come down against other members of Thaksin’s party, and convicted Thaksin’s wife of assets concealment. In the most recent example, the courts last week declared that the courts would be seizing most of the former prime minister’s assets, in a highly dubious decision that enraged Thaksin’s supporters, who are now calling for a million-person rally in Bangkok.
Just like in an autocracy, in a judiocracy the rulers brook little dissent. People who criticize court decisions can be held in contempt of court and punished. Prominent pro-elite media outlets savage anyone who dares question the rightness of these powerful judges.
Of course, in turning itself into a political force, the judiciary is destroying any sense of impartiality it still enjoys with average Thais. In Chiang Mai, Thaksin’s home base, nearly everyone I met, from taxi drivers to local businesspeople, had lost all trust in the judges. “Bangkok people, they won’t let [Thaksin] win,” one local landlord told me. “It’s all fixed.”