To Coup or Not to Coup? Thailand in Transition

Over the past three months, political turmoil in Thailand has created a major political crisis. The crisis has been triggered by a conflict between two major political factions. The first is the Democrat Party, whose supporters consist mostly of middle-class urbanites and the second is the Pheu Thai Party, which is led by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and commands large majorities built on high levels of rural support. The protests instigated by Democrat Party supporters were initially a reaction to government efforts to pass amnesty bills for Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother, Thaksin, who was Prime Minister of Thailand until he was deposed in a Democrat Party-led coup in 2006. Although the government dropped the bill in the face of significant opposition, the protests metastasized into general anti-government sentiment, especially in large parts of Thailand’s capital, Bangkok. Shinawatra, in an attempt to defuse the protests, responded to the escalating unrest by calling for a new general election to demonstrate the democratic legitimacy of her government.

The voting was scheduled to take place on February 2nd, and while the government almost certainly received an overwhelming majority of the votes cast, the opposition succeeded in disrupting voting in enough parts of the country to invalidate the election results. The election results were disputed as only 89% of polling stations operated without disruption and because a minimum of 95% of seats in Parliament must be filled before a new government can be formed. Meanwhile, the Democrat Party was working towards another goal – as it knew that it stood a minimal chance of winning free and fair elections, it hoped to provoke the Thai military-bureaucratic establishment into pushing the Pheu Thai Party out of power. This follows a long tradition in Thailand of having the bureaucracy meddle in electoral politics.

Although many developing nations struggle with democratic stability and consolidation, Thailand in particular has had a notoriously coup-prone past. It has seen seven coups since 1945, with the first of those coming in 1947.[1] Coups in 1947, 1951, and 1958 were all part of the same process, with reactionary officers guarding against the possibility of left-leaning politicians coming into power. For example, the 1947 coup happened shortly after the Communist Party of Thailand won its first seat in Parliament. By 1958, the army had completely entrenched its hold on power, and dispensed with the pretence of democratic legitimacy – General Sarit Thanarat suspended Parliament and banned political parties and political gatherings.[2] After significant civil unrest, military rule thawed enough for mostly free and fair elections to be held in the 1970s, before being derailed by another set of coups. The 1976 coup was headed by a rabidly right-wing Supreme Court Justice, whom the centrist generals deposed by 1977.[3] The rapid pace of regime turnovers created an interesting dynamic, in which coups became a primary means of political competition between elites resisting change. The 1976 coup was primarily motivated by resistance of land reform and crushed the Thai Communist Party completely while the 1977 coup aimed to resist the rightward bend of the 1976 government.

 The aftermath of the 1977 coup created some hope for the blossoming of Thai democracy, which enjoyed a revival in the 1980s. The army unintentionally left a centrist base within Thailand which helped deal with the problem of its fractious political parties and clearly delineated the boundaries of societally acceptable political discourse. As far as institutionalization of this political centrism goes, it probably was not far enough. Thailand’s 1991 coup demonstrates the limitations of the military’s attempts to promote centrism. The 1991 coup is interesting for being one of the last gasps of the bureaucratic polity.[4] When the army tried to restrict the relative political flowering of Thailand that had begun in the 1980s; the public response was swift and unforgiving, with massive demonstrations rocking Thailand. The coup leaders did not expect such a strong reply and pressured by the king, they stepped down by 1992. In 1997, a new, fully civilian constitution was written, and by the 21st century, the Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) under Thaksin Shinawatra had successfully managed to tap into a broad spectrum of rural concerns, single-handedly attaining a majority in Parliament.

The rise of the TRT after the 1997 constitution signified a new development in Thailand’s democratic history. Thailand’s political parties, long rendered fractious and irrelevant, seemed to finally be coming into their own, potentially replacing the army and the palace as foci of power and politics within society. However, in 2006, the army became concerned at the TRT’s institutionalization of power, corruption, and its failure to deal with internal insurgencies in the south. As a result, the military took action against what they saw as a corrupt government by launching yet another coup against them.  Although the TRT had majority support throughout the country, the international community nevertheless refrained from uniform condemnation of the coup as the army seemed intent on ridding the civilian government of its corruption and inefficiency.[5] Even though the armed forces took action to ban the TRT and push through a new constitution, they nevertheless did not prevent the vast majority of its members from reconstituting themselves as the Pheu Thai Party.

One of the factors that differentiates Thailand from many other developing states is that traditionally, in democratic regimes, legitimacy supposedly comes from political institutions that often claim to represent the will of the people. In Thailand, the king himself is a source of legitimacy and symbol of the nation. As an organization, the palace has proven highly adaptable, rooted, coherent, and autonomous; King Bhumibol Adulyadej has been in power since 1946. This fractured source of legitimacy plays a major role in Thailand’s frequent coups; the army and the palace can follow through on institutional change, while democratic forces have a tougher time – only four parliaments in the 20th century were completed.[6] The rest were all interrupted by military coups. Indeed, the military and the king often work hand in glove – the vast majority of Thailand’s coups has either been tacitly or openly approved by the king.[7]

Thus, political parties, as competing sources of political legitimacy and order, are thus significantly hamstrung, complicating matters further. The 1997 constitution was Thailand’s first (and so far, only) constitution drafted via popular representation. Political institutions and organizations are forced to play the political game on the army and palace’s terms, significantly hamstringing them. Institutional reform in Thailand is crucial – and the common occurrence of coups only serves to further retard institutions’ growth.

Although opinions on the legitimacy of the Pheu Thai Party vary, the most important factor that will contribute to democratic survival in Thailand is the establishment of a norm of military non-intervention. Ultimately, the monarchy remains an integral institution in Thai politics and it is unclear what effect the death of the King will have on prospects for democratic consolidation in Thailand. Although Thailand is undergoing an extensive degree of political violence at the moment, encouraging signs still dominate the broader picture. One positive sign is that the TRT was banned but was allowed to substantively recreate itself under the banner of the Pheu Thai Party, which now singlehandedly holds a majority in the Thai parliament. This evidence suggests that the TRT was actually quite deep-rooted, and it might be considered an institutionalized party that is not going away. The military did not functionally crush or prevent this particular majority bloc from power, as it was focused on dealing with the short-term nature of the problems at hand.

This new arrangement suits the civilian government; the current unrest in Thailand is still less violent than 2006 was, and the army has so far refused to be drawn into politics again as a result. Ultimately, Pheu Thai’s continued success and control of Parliament, even under a militarily-written constitution, engenders great hope that Thailand might be starting to enjoy a truly comprehensive, and credible alternative source of legitimacy.

-Ted Mateoc


[1]    Aurel Croissant, “Coups and Post-Coup Politics in South-East Asia and the Pacific: Conceptual and Comparative Perspectives,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 3 (2013): 268.

[2]    Erik Martinez Kuhonta, The Institutional Imperative: The Politics of Equitable Development in Southeast Asia (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2011), 147.

[3]    Ibid, 163.

[4]    Nicholas Farrelly, “Why Democracy Struggles: Thailand’s Elite Coup Culture,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 67, no. 3 (2013): 286.

[5]    Kevin Hewison, “Thailand after the Good Coup,” Brown Journal of World Affairs 14 (2008): 238.

[6]    Natasha M. Ezrow and Erica Frantz, Dictators and Dictatorships: Understanding Authoritarian Regimes and Their Leaders (Continuum, 2011), 105.

[7]    Ibid.