Thailand’s political crisis has reached a deadlock. The mistrust which has long permeated the political process is now poisoning attempts to break the impasse. With the Parliament disbanded, the Prime Minister ousted, the caretaker government without a regular mandate, the Courts and independent commissions widely disregarded, the political system is paralyzed. Democratic conflict mediation mechanisms, most importantly elections, are fiercely resisted by many. On both sides, some have irresponsibly started to talk about the need to “cut through the Gordian knot” by violence.

An elite bargain to defuse this ticking bomb is necessary, yet insufficient. Many Thais are no longer willing to accept done deals brokered in some backroom. Hence, any sustainable resolution needs popular support. Thus, to unfreeze the political system, the deadlock between the conflicting red and yellow camps has to be broken. In fact, their positions are not too far apart. One side wants a “clean government” and the other calls for a “responsive government”. There must surely be a way to combine the two?

However, between the two battle cries “reform before elections” and “reforms before elections are undemocratic”, there is very little room for compromise. In other words, the key to resolving the deadlock is not only substance, but perceptions. What is needed is a bridge between identities and values, beliefs and emotions, worldviews and ideals. A new vision for a common future which encourages all sides to come together is needed.

In order to do that, we have to understand how this awkward opposition between “reforms” and “elections” came into being in the first place. The protracted conflict in Thailand has several interrelated dimensions. On the actors’ level, it is a conflict between two elite factions over the political, social and economic control of the country. On the structural level, it reflects the transition from a patrimonial towards a legal-rational order. However, neither the composition of the red and yellow alliances, nor their strategies can be fully explained by interests or structural factors.

In order to better understand the many puzzles of the red yellow conflict formation, a comprehensive look into the role of discourses in constructing the conflict is needed. This discourse analysis aims to show how the red-yellow conflict was constructed, in order to identify entry points for discourse interventions which may be helpful to dissolve the political deadlock. [i]

I The discursive shift in Thailand’s conflict

In the current stand-off, the political formation has so far prevented both sides from using a militant approach to win this conflict round. Despite being under heavy pressure to stage a military coup d’état, the military top brass seems wary of any direct intervention. The incalculable risks of a “red” insurgency, deserting Isan recruits and defecting “watermelon” (“green outside, red inside”) officers, international pressure and even criminal prosecution seem to worry the armed forces. Nonetheless, in a country with a history of 18 coups d’état, warning by the military top brass to interfere if substantial bloodshed occurs will always be credible enough to deter the government side from cracking down on the protesters. As the tragic track record of more than 20 dead and hundreds wounded shows, this does not prevent small-scale violent attacks as a tactical instrument, nor does it suggest that a changing situation may not force the hand of hesitant decision makers to reconsider a militant approach. In fact, remarks by the Army Chief about a “special option” suggest that the military leadership considers a coup as a last resort. In other words, the political formation of this conflict round is by no means stable; accordingly, the risk calculations over the use of large-scale force can always change. In order to explain the conflict dynamic over the last six months, though, the inability to decide this conflict round by a coup or a crackdown played an important role because it changed the opportunity structures. Simply put, the battlefield was moved from the backroom strings-pulling of the patronage system into the field of discourses, where different rules apply.

The changing rules of the game explain the strategic blunders by the shrewd master players of both sides. The own goals of the ‘General Amnesty’ as well as the ‘Boycott of the February Elections’ illustrate that in the logic of the patronage system, domestic and international public opinion, or even one’s own “foot soldiers”, do not matter. Under the changing rules of the game, however, these factors become crucial for success. This became apparent on November 25, 2013 when anti-government protesters closed government compounds, operating within the old paradigm associating the government with the buildings it occupies. Unwittingly or not, when protesters were allowed to claim “victory”, it became clear that a government as an institution is not primarily defined by its physical presence, but by its attributed legitimacy to make universally accepted decisions. In a similar vein, the physical “shutdown” of Bangkok collapsed when the election blockade eroded protesters’ legitimacy claims in the eye of their middle class supporters. Accordingly, it remains to be seen what kind of effect the ouster of the Prime Minister and nine cabinet ministers by the judiciary will have on the legitimacy of the caretaker government. If protesters’ claims are to be believed, then the removal of a “puppet” seems ill suited to affect the balance of power. Be that as it may, these examples show that over the past six months, success or failure of political actors were partly determined by their ability to play by the rules of a discursive struggle.

In the discursive game of power, legitimacy claims are front and center. And indeed, the main strategies of both camps aimed at establishing their own legitimacy, while undermining the legitimacy claims of the other side. When the government made the case for its electoral legitimacy, anti-government protesters went out of their way to argue why it has been invalidated by “undemocratic or unethical behavior” (“abuse of power”; “disrespect for the separation of powers”, “threatening national security by supporting secessionist movements”). When the government sought to renew its electoral mandate, the anti-government side blocked, boycotted and nullified the elections. The anti-government camp used varying claims to prove its own legitimate right to rule (“sovereignty of the great mass of the people”, “defense of rule of law”, “thick democracy needs accountability”). Correspondingly, these legitimacy claims were pierced the pro-government side (“ammaart judicial coup”, “spoiled rich kids”, “anti-democratic minority”, “fascist mob”). Again these examples show that, successful or not, legitimacy discourses were central elements of the strategic communication of both sides.

The very fact that such a fierce struggle over legitimacy claims is raging shows that the “royalist” discourse community has lost discourse hegemony. Only a few years back, the network monarchy had the discursive power to explain “what is going on” and “what needs to be done about it”. Today, reflecting the increased political awareness in every corner of country, more and more people openly challenge this authority. The symbolic battle over lèse majesté signifies not only the abuse and hyperbole associated with this draconian law, but more generally that many citizens no longer consider “unsayable things” as taboo. Discursive power has even more dramatically shifted in the international arena. Courts arguing that “elections are not compatible with the principle of democracy” or officials declaring that “it is not the job of an election commission to organize elections” are portrayed by international media as similarly “hopelessly out of touch with reality” as the “Ferrari Boys”. Being consistently ridiculed by international media, anti-government protesters inaptly started fuming against “biased media” and even resorted to physical attacks on journalists. Consequently, the international media coverage of the Constitutional Court ouster of Prime Minster almost unanimously echoed the “red” topoi of a judicial coup. As long as this conflict round is fought over rival legitimacy claims, the ‘invisible power’ of discourses is a decisive resource. In a political formation characterized by the inability to use large-scale violence, the royalist loss of discourse hegemony accelerated the ongoing shift in the balance of power.

In sum, in the current political formation, as instable as it may be, discourses play a major role in constructing the conflict, determining the strategies of players, and affecting their chances of success or failure. In lieu of a (much needed) comprehensive discourse analysis, this essay can only take a narrower look into the role of corruption discourses.

II The role of corruption narratives in constructing the red yellow conflict

The Thai conflict poses many puzzles for conventional wisdom. Under the (obsolete) transition paradigm, societies were expected to inevitably and irreversibly develop from personalistic to legal-rational to democratic orders. And middle classes are assumed to be the primary agents of democratic change.

The transformation conflict in Thailand shows that such a transition path is by no means predetermined, but dependent on the outcome of a struggle between those who seek to uphold the status quo, and those who want change. More so, not all of those who work toward a legal-rational order also want further democratization. In the Thai conflict, change agents are divided into those who prefer to uphold social stability by authoritarian means and those who strive for an egalitarian society in a democratic order. Even those who want democracy stress different dimensions of it, with some promoting accountability and rule of law and others focusing on elections and majority rule.

To understand how these different visions for the future, as well as the political alliances struggling for them are constructed, one needs to look into the role of corruption narratives.

1 Five corruption discourse worlds

Given the prominence of corruption narratives in the Thai discourse, it is not surprising that a wide spectrum of corruption discourses exists. I will limit the analysis to five key discourses, and show how they are combined to form the nucleus of larger discourse alliances.

Moralistic fear of moral decay

The moralist cosmology is static, so change is perceived as social decay. Unable to decipher the underlying economic and social changes, moralists blame structural problems on individual moral failure. Deeply rooted in the culture of Theravada Buddhism, moralists explain high social status with the moral authority reflecting kamma acquired in prior lives. Hence, corruption by “bad people” at the top must be seen as a perversion of the ideal social-moral order. The solution is clear: “bad people” need to be replaced by “good people” whose virtue is assumed due to their membership in the ‘network monarchy’. “Vile” critics of the social order “have no place in decent society”; they cannot be “real Thais” and should leave the country “to live somewhere else”. Moralists aim for a political system led by “neutral people of virtue”. With reference to Plato’s “philosopher king”, this can be a monarchy administered by loyal technocrats.

Fascist fear of biological decay

The fascist discourse eclectically combines terminology and topoi from different ideological sources, ranging from royalism, communism and historical fascism. At its core, fascism is driven by the fear of societal decay. Looking back to the (imagined) Golden Past, the fascist project is to regenerate morality and the nation by transforming human consciousness rather than social structures. While the elitist social hierarchy is to remain untouched, society needs to be purged from those who corrupt it. Corruption is therefore not only understood as a moral problem, but as a biological one: it is the very existence of “bad people” that poisons society. Accordingly, ‘The Other Within’ is de-humanized as “buffalos”, “rubbish”, or “germs infecting the Thai political body”, and therefore must be “hunted down and exterminated”. In order to “root out the rotten regime”, the economic base of those in power needs to be “purged”, including the system of “Parliamentary dictatorship” which allowed them to attain their positions. Contrary to the Weberian legal-rational authority which operates within a framework of laws and rules, the charismatic authority of a fascist leader is potentially unlimited. Because of the unmediated relationship between leader and his people, the leader defines the ‘real will of the people’, or Rousseau’s ‘general will’. Hence the fascist vision “understands ‘genuine democracy’ as an absolute dictatorship, absolutism and popular sovereignty being fused into a form of ‘totalitarian democracy’”. Accordingly, protesters simultaneously call for “absolute monarchy” and ”Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State”. Where the distinction between ‘public’ and ‘private’ as well as ‘state’ and ‘civil society’ is obliterated, corruption – defined as the use of public means for private gain – does not exist.

Legalistic-technocratic institutional engineering

The legalist-technocratic discourse understands corruption as a governance problem threatening economic growth, the rule of law, or democratic legitimacy. The solution is to install institutional safeguards, if necessary by imposing them onto society. This sense of urgency is sometimes rooted in a Jacobin reformist zeal which strives to promote the absolute “Truth”, which needs to be enforced to save society from decay. Legalists tend to be concerned with an erosion of the Rule of Law. Technocrats are afraid that “populism” could lead to state bankruptcy. ‘Yellow’ and ‘red’ versions of ‘The Truth’ lead to diverging political visions, dividing the legalist-technocratic discourse community between two camps.

Neoliberal faith in the market

Neoliberals understand corruption as a problem of the inefficient and overstretched state. By strangulating dynamism of the private sector, the bureaucratic monster is a bottleneck for economic growth. To unleash the dynamism of competitive markets, the private sector needs to be freed from bureaucratic red tape. To prevent the inefficient allocation of resources due to political motivations, the role of the state needs to be cut back. Under the regime of fiscal austerity, the cash strapped state needs to be relieved of some of some of its burdens by privatizing the provision of social services and infrastructure.

Progressives push for change

The ancient regime discourse understands corruption as a problem of the “feudal order” led by traditional elites (ammaart). Hence corruption is primarily seen as a problem of social justice, especially of double standards in the judicial system. The solution is to complete democratization and promote social equality. Corruption of elected politicians is dismissed as leftovers from the feudalist culture. Progressive political visions vary, but usually have a strong emphasis on electoral majority rule in common.

Fear of change

The common thread running through all these discourses is fear. Fear of moral decay, fear of the poison of bad people, fear of monopolization of power, fear of identity loss, fear of economic decline, state bankruptcy or state failure, or fear of an ammaart rollback of democracy. What is striking is the absence of any positive vision for a better future.

2 Four functions of corruption narratives

In the political conflict, these corruption narratives determine how people see and interpret the social and cultural changes driven by transformation. In the Thai conflict, four functions of corruption discourses can be identified.

What’s going on? Explaining the world

First, corruption narratives help to explain what is going on. Because for most people, the complex and deeply rooted structural transformations are not visible or understandable, they need a symbolic representation to make these changes tangible and actionable. With its far-reaching political, cultural and philosophical implications, corruption narratives help to boil down the bigger process of social change into a nutshell. Therefore, it seems to be no coincidence that corruption narratives play such a central role in many different transformation societies around the world. Corruption narratives explain in simple terms what is at stake in the bigger struggle over the political and moral order. Thus, many transformation conflicts are being discursively constructed around corruption cleavages.

In the Thai conflict, the topoi “corruption causes social decay” works as rallying cry for those who are wary of change, those who feel that something is not right in the new state of capitalism, those who are concerned about state failure or bankruptcy, and those who seek to reaffirm the traditional order. “Social decay causes corruption”, appeals to all who feel the current order violates their dignity, those who see the social order as unjust and those who feel excluded and seek a place at the table, those who demand equal rights and those who seek to consolidate democracy.

Most Thais still believe that there can only be one undividable and universal truth. Hence those who live by it are righteous, and anyone believing in another truth must be wrong and immoral.

The raging middle classes: Mobilizing social pressure

Second, corruption narratives are striking a cord with social groups, making them the ideal rallying cry to mobilize mass political support. Corruption narratives seem to be at the core of Bangkok’s middle class rage, echoing similar phenomena in transformation conflicts around the world.

The origin of middle class rage lies in a political formation typical for many flawed democracies. In order to win elections with the support of the rural vote, political entrepreneurs forged alliances with local power-brokers. Once elected, local politicians tend to bring the feudalistic logic of the province into national politics. Patronage politics dictates that allies have to be nurtured, loyalties rewarded, support bought and clients protected.

Seen from the perspective of the middle class, patrons distributing spoils into their personal networks is degeneration back to “primitive times” thought to be long gone. Rich kids let of the hook after committing crimes nourishes a feeling of double standards and endemic nepotism. More generally, middle classes feel like they are “being robbed” by corrupt politicians, who use their tax revenues to “buy votes” from the “greedy poor”. In more subtle language, the “uneducated rural masses are easy prey for politicians who promise them everything in an effort to get a hold of power”. From this perspective, policies delivering to local constituencies are nothing but “populism”, or another form of “vote buying” by power hungry politicians.” The solution is then clear: To suspend the mechanism which allows the rule of the “corrupt provinces” over the “decent capital” – elections.

This discursive equation of electoral democracy with corruption is crucial to the construction of the political conflict alongside the dichotomy between “reforms” and “elections”. In a more narrow sense, it helps to explain the puzzle why in many transformation conflicts, middle classes seem to act against their presumed class interest. Looking at their position in the political economy, conventional wisdom would assume the middle classes should be on the forefront of the struggle for a legal-rational and democratic order. Middle classes gain their social status based on personal achievement such as success in business, academic merit, artistic talent or engineering skills. This should alienate middle classes from the patronage system, where social status and mobility largely depend on personal relationships. However, in Thailand like in many other transformation conflicts, middle classes have forged alliances with those who seek to uphold the patrimonial order, and hundreds of thousands come out to demand the ousting of elected governments.

Hence, the political posture of established urban middle classes cannot only be explained by their supposed ‘class interest’, instead it is largely determined by the intermediary role of discourses in defining interests, identities and visions. The narratives equating electoral democracy with corruption (“vote buying”, “populism” and “mafia rule”) superimpose the structural alienation of middle classes from the patrimonial order. Combined with social fears to be squeezed between “greedy poor” and “abusive elites”, the narratives equating elections with corruption mobilize the urban middle classes in their struggle to curb, suspend or overthrow electoral democracy.

In general, the toxic combination between fear of social change, the lack of imagination to find a way out of the mess of the political conflict, and the absence of any vision for a better future induces people to cling on to what they know, and mobilizes the masses to defend their the social order their identities are built upon.

Platform for discourse alliances

Third, corruption narratives function as a common platform for broad and heterogeneous societal coalitions. What is striking about the rival alliances in the Thai conflict is their enormously broad political, social and ideological spectrum. In the ‘yellow’ alliance, royalist aristocrats, Bangkok’s conservative middle class, military men and Southern farmers march side by side with workers and former communist insurgents. The ‘red’ alliance includes capitalist tycoons, progressive academics and civil society, police men, peripheral middle classes and Northern and North-Eastern “political peasants” and Bangkok’s “urbanized villagers”. Bringing these alliances together despite diverging class interests, personal rivalries and opposing ideologies needs a strong common cause. Because of their broad appeal to many different social groups, corruption narratives are ideally placed to work as discursive platforms for such heterogeneous societal alliances. Despite all their differences, “saving the nation from moral corruption” is what royalists and former communists, military men and workers, southern farmers and Bangkok’s middle class can agree on… Whereas “overcoming a corrupt and unjust system” is the battle cry for the red alliance between capitalist tycoons and the poor, academics and taxi drivers, rural farmers and Bangkok’s cosmopolitan bohème.

Formatting the political field

Finally, corruption discourses structure the political battlefield by framing issues, empowering actors, but also setting limits to their room for maneuver.

The discursive juxtaposition of “reform before election” versus “reforms are not democratic” defines the battle lines of the political conflict, leaving very little room for compromise.

The yellow discourse rages against the “Villain Thaksin”, cheers for the “Hero Kamnan Suthep” and bemoans the “Great Mass of the People” as the victim of “Thaksin regime”. The red discourse despises the “Villain Suthep”, celebrates the “Democracy Heroine Yingluck” and points to the “betrayed 20 million voters” as the victims of the “ammaart coup”.

Corruption narratives largely determine the political solution a speaker has in mind. Those who fear corruption as moral decay will seek to strengthen morality. Those who blame it on “bad people” will aim to “exterminate” this “rubbish”. Those who identify it as a problem of governance will install new laws and institutions, and those who see it as the decay of the ancient regime will strive to overcome it.

In the current stand-off, corruption discourses play a central role in empowering actors, namely the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), the Constitutional Court and independent commissions such the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC), while limiting the room for maneuver of the government. Interestingly, while none of the pending charges directly accused the caretaker government of corruption, in the public discourse these charges were almost exclusively framed as political corruption. In a semiotic reading, corruption allegations thus can be interpreted as empty signifiers. Politically, by mobilizing hundreds of thousands of protesters over several months, corruption narratives provide enormous convening power.

Corruption narratives are also central to the construction of the deeper transformation conflict. The narrative, that “all politicians are corrupt”, negatively frames the elected representatives of social groups, and erodes the critical resource of trust, effectively undermining the ability of political actors from all sides to broker a deal to resolve the current stand-off. The “vote buying”, “populism” topoi equates democratic elections with corruption. The Thai Constitutional Courts in its seminal ruling on the constitutional amendment seeking to have a fully elected Senate, used the “Spouse Parliament” narrative to equate elections with nepotism. Arguing that, “It is an attempt to draw the Nation back into the canal, as it would bring the Senate back to the state of being an assembly of relatives, assembly of family members and assembly of husbands and wives.” Consequently many of the “reforms” of the past decade aimed to curb the influence of elected politicians by checking them with “neutral” institutions. More generally, the discursive equation of the democratic process of negotiation, compromise, and trade-offs between interest groups with “moral corruption” deepens the legitimacy crisis of the political system.

In sum, corruption discourses play a key role in the construction of the red yellow conflict. Corruption narratives offer explanations for the anonymous and sometimes frightening forces of change, and offer common platforms for heterogeneous groups with diverging interests to join forces in the red and yellow discourse alliances. Corruption narratives spark middle class outrage and mobilize the masses to protest. Anti-corruption discourses empower actors such as the PDRC, the NACC and the Constitutional Court, while limiting the room for maneuver of the government. Most importantly, the discursive equation between democracy and corruption leads to the political deadlock between the agendas of “reform” and “elections”.

III Reframing the fight against corruption can help to break the political deadlock

Corruption discourses play a central role in constructing the red yellow discourse. Therefore, reframing corruption discourses can contribute to the resolution of Thailand’s deeper transformation crisis.

In order to overcome its transformation conflict, Thai society needs to renegotiate the social contract with a view of laying the social foundation for a political order capable of satisfying the needs of a complex economy and pluralist society. In other words, Thailand needs to finalize the transition from a patrimonial to a legal rationalist democracy.

However, the false equation between democracy and corruption nurtures mistrust over “ultimate motives” of corruption fighters, fuels ideological proxy battles and paralyzes the policy making process. Hence, in order to build up the merit based institutions and strengthen the rule of law, the fight against corruption needs to be cleansed from the odor of “hidden agendas” by firmly and unmistakably embedding it into the struggle for deeper democratization.

If corruption means the abuse of power, then fighting corruption means to empower people to defend their rights and interests against the powerful and wealthy. In other words, to fight corruption, more democracy, not less, is needed. Deeper democratization will help to strengthen the rule of law, making political parties more responsive and elected leaders more accountable. This is why the fight against corruption cannot be neutral, but is part and parcel of the larger struggle for democratic emancipation and social justice.

Then again, a legal-rational democratic order can only be the outcome of a political struggle between those who seek to uphold the traditional order, and those who struggle to change it. Deeply entrenched in the political economy, the social order and the hegemonic ideology, the status quo alliance is a powerful political force. How can the powerful and wealthy be brought within limits, to be made answerable to others? To make things even more challenging, anti-corruption bodies can be used as tools to defend elite interests, and anti-corruption narratives are instrumental to building broad societal alliances struggling to uphold the status quo. So if a large part of society opposes the idea of change, how can the legal-rational order indispensable for curbing corruption come into being?

The epic struggle over the political order can only be won by the political muscle of a broad societal change coalition. To marginalize extremists, and win the struggle against those who benefit from the status quo, those who seek to fight corruption and those who want social justice need to join forces and build a new political center. To forge broad societal Grand Rainbow Coalition between heterogeneous social groups with diverging interests and ideologies, a discursive platform with broad appeal is needed.

Building a strong political center can only work if it is supported by the middle classes. Therefore, it is indispensable to bring the raging middle classes back into the democratic flock. As shown above, the political attitude of middle classes is less based on interest, but framed by narratives which equate electoral democracy with corruption. Therefore, the discursive equation of democracy with corruption must be broken by reframing how society in general and the middle classes in particular think and talk about corruption.

The history of democratization suggests the themes around which such a narrative could be build. In Europe, temporary coalitions between middle class and working class were instrumental to end aristocratic rule. Their common vision bridging vast differences of interests and culture was a social order which allowed social mobility based on personal achievement, as opposed to aristocratic heredity and patrimonial network connections. Equal opportunities for all, combined with effective rule of law protecting the minority from the electoral majority was the formula most people could agree on. Social democratic compromises between all classes finally ended decades and even centuries of social conflict. At the heart of the new social contract was the promise that society would provide full capabilities for all, empowering everyone to ‘make it’ based on talent, hard work, and merit. By combining the quest for a legal-rational order with the struggle for social justice and political emancipation, the social democratic compromise provided the social foundation for political and economic development, and decades of social stability.

To unite the fight against corruption with the struggle for deeper democratization, corruption needs to be understood less as an individual moral failure, but as a collective problem of social justice. If corruption is the abuse of power, then it is a problem of equal rights and opportunities between the powerful and the powerless. Combining the struggles for social justice, the rule of law and deeper democratization is a winning formula which offers a way out of deadlock of transformation conflicts.

A social compromise between those who seek a merit-based order and those who struggle for equal opportunities enables the laying of a social foundation for a new social contract. The common vision of a “Legal-rational order as the basis for a Good Society with full capabilities for all” helps to transcend fears and conflict by opening a new path into the future.

[i] This essay will not analyze the catalytic functions of endemic corruption as a structural factor. A comprehensive study on “Fighting corruption in transformation countries” will shortly be available at www.fes-thailand.org