After some time on vacation, I have returned to find that Thai politics, which almost couldn’t get worse, actually has. Last month, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, in my opinion the most astute observer of Thai politics, captured the fundamental tension in Thailand today in an op-ed:
Thailand’s problem is that those who keep winning elections are not allowed to rule, whereas others who ultimately call the shots cannot win elections. [Thanks to Bangkok Pundit for pointing me to Thitinan’s op-ed]
That, in a nutshell, is Thailand’s dilemma, one shared by many middle-income developing nations where middle classes are becoming increasingly skeptical of the benefits of democratization, as I discuss in my forthcoming book The Decline of Democracy (Yale University Press). In Thailand, however, the government of Yingluck Shinawatra seemed at first to make some headway toward at least a short-term solution to this impasse, the kind of solution achieved by more populist governments in places like Brazil: Yingluck and her party would be allowed to hold and exercise power, and might continue some of the populist programs started by her brother Thaksin Shinawatra (and continued by the Democrats), but she would also take significant pains to reassure traditional elites, including the military, that she would not challenge their orbits of power. Yingluck publicly venerated Privy Council members, and, according to several articles by Shawn Crispin and others, allowed pro-royalists to essentially continue their McCarthyite attacks on anyone who even questions the long-term nature of the monarchy unabated. She also had mostly kept her hands off of the military budget.
Over time, such a deal, as in Brazil, might eventually have reassured elites —the military, big business, the palace— enough that they would see that a truly democratically elected government would not necessarily be a significant threat to their interests, and surely would be preferable to the alternative: to hold out against real democratic rule for as long as possible, further enraging large portions of the Thai public and thus potentially birthing a more aggressively anti-elite politician than Yingluck or other Puea Thai leaders, who are hardly grassroots populists, along the lines of Hugo Chavez or Evo Morales.
But Thaksin has now clearly overstepped the deal, with his desire to show that he is really in charge and that his political purgatory has ended. His planned trip to the United States was originally supposed to be relatively low-profile, just a means of demonstrating that he was again welcome in Western capitals and should not have been treated like a fugitive. But it may become increasingly high-profile, just as his recent trips to Southeast Asian nations have put him at the center of Thai politics again, and made him look exactly like what his opponents always claimed —the puppet master who ruled the “red shirts”, Puea Thai and Yingluck from behind the scenes. I don’t believe that this was —or is— really the case. In fact, a fascinating article released late last year by academics Duncan McCargo and Naruemon Thabchumpon shows that the red shirt movement is far more diverse, class-wise and policy-wise, than the simple reductions of poor rural farmers who follow Thaksin. But Thaksin’s increasing desire to place himself again right at the center of the political stage, even while his sister maintains high popularity ratings among the public, is both threatening the reconciliation and allowing his opponents to more effectively make their case.