Commenting on Thai politics and political reform in Thailand these days is no fun, because the situation is unusually complicated, and the ideological climate has become almost suffocating. Anyway, I will make six observations that I think are pertinent to the current discussion of political reform, three each concerning structural and ideological issues.

First, if democracy means that, “Control over government decisions about policy is constitutionally vested in officials elected by citizens” (Dahl), how does Thailand score on this issue? Thai elected governments have to accept their limited policy-making capabilities. Security policy has been the prerogative of an independent-minded military, while the civil bureaucracy has maintained its own policy plans vis-├а-vis their ministers, who they often despise. Many technocrats still do not see why elected politicians are an improvement compared to authoritarian times. The 2007 Constitution even forces governments, in its long chapter V on “Directive principles of fundamental state policies,” to implement a wide range of policies. This essentially reduces the policy-making government to a set of elected managers of a constitutional policy agenda. And this agenda was made compulsory by a democratically illegitimate group of academics and bureaucrats serving on constitution-drafting committees established by the coup-plotters. Thus, the chapter on state policies fundamentally contradicts the key democratic principle stated in article 3, “The sovereign power belongs to the Thai people.”

Second, the Thai polity has not yet developed what for European political history has been referred to as “nationally available categories” (Tilly) of political contestation (for example, Labor-Conservatives-Liberal Democrats). Rather, politics remains “highly localized and territorialized” (Caramani). The political party system, therefore, shows a very low degree of institutionalization. Parties have largely remained exclusive clubs of local notables and their supra-provincial factions. This seriously undermines the policy-making and administrative capabilities of national-level political personnel (in fact, all societal areas in Thailand have similarly serious capacity building problems). This way, the performance advantages of a mature democracy cannot be realized. Not surprisingly, this situation in some circles has undermined the ideas of freedom and democracy as the most desirable foundations of governance.

Third, although citizens are allowed to vote in elections, the political system mostly lacks inclusive formal mechanisms that would allow ordinary people interested in active political participation to access institutions of decision-making. There remains a “wide gulf between political elites and citizens” (Carothers). At the provincial level, political structures are largely informal and invisible. Rather than being expressions of democratic public affairs, up-country politics are mostly treated by its important personnel as mere extensions of their family households and personal friendship networks (phuak). This situation fundamentally contradicts the principle of equal democratic citizenship.

Together with the preceding point, it is thus not surprising that voting is largely determined by local conditions, rather than being an expression of a nationally homogenized electorate (the proportional vote, though, does have a strong element of nationalization).

From the perspective of the Thai socio-political and monarchist Establishment representing the old hierarchical nature of the Thai polity as well as subsequent long periods of military and bureaucratic rule, the preceding three observations are unproblematic. On the contrary, they only confirm that the present form of democracy, including the lack of democratic qualification supposedly exhibited by politicians and voters, does not serve “the country/nation” well, which is the reason used to justify continued paternalist elite rule, though in a democratized way. The following three ideological issues are more problematic, certainly to the Establishment (no malicious intent here; the following issues merely serve to highlight certain causal elements of the current political conflicts; these elements will have to be considered in search for solutions).

First, the monarchy and the actions of the royal family are strictly removed from any public debate, even if such actions and the monarchy as an institution are politically significant. This relationship between the monarchy and the citizens of Thailand’s democratic polity has recently gained publicity under the label of lèse majesté. The king himself-in his speech given on the eve of his birthday anniversary on December 4, 2005-had said that the king can be criticized, and that it was actually the king who was in trouble if people were punished for lèse majesté. Grant Evans made a pertinent remark on this issue in the Bangkok Post:

With each charge of lese majeste people are being asked to chose between monarchy and democracy and ultimately this will work against the former’s stature. … vigilante monarchists seem to be the main threat to the monarchy’s longevity.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has sent a few signals about changing the application of lèse majesté. However, one might doubt-given strong opposition-whether key issues will be tackled, such as the transfer of the right to initiate complaints, a significant reduction of penalties, the permission of academic and journalistic analysis, and the dissociation of lèse majesté from the issue of national security.

The broader context of lèse majesté is a reframing of the relationship between monarchy and citizens. There are at least two opposing ways of handling this issue. The PAD, for example, adhered to the official ideology that the outstanding feature of Thai society was that “the king is at the center of the people’s soul” (Sondhi Limthongkul; sunruam chitwinyan khong prachachon). However, since the PAD also knew that this was rather more a normative statement than a reflection of reality, they wanted to impose this position upon the people by expanding the constitution’s chapter on the monarchy by a stipulation that would have made it a duty for every Thai to protect and worship the monarchy.

Obviously, this attempt to create artificial unity in the face of empirical diversity would face enforcement problems, not to mention that it collides with the normative and practical requirements of a democratic political order. Senior citizen and monarchist Prawase Wasi offered a view much more liberal than that of the PAD, saying

In a pluralistic society, people think differently. There are people who worship the monarchy and those who don’t-it is natural. The key is how to channel the differences towards creative collaboration and output. (Bangkok Post, April 18, 2009)

Prawase’ statement thus goes far beyond the usual ideological emphasis on national unity by stating that Thailand is pluralistic. (The “White Shirts” seem to regress to a nationalism-based unity, and thus do not show the way to a “new democratic deal” for Thailand. Matichon, May 7, 2009, headlined a major article, “Stop harming the country – dissolve the colored [political] camps by using the national flag.” At the end of this piece, we read, “Consider the following words, ‘We must join our hearts and stand in respect of our national flag with pride in our independence and the sacrifice of our Thai ancestors.’ Afterwards, we can join in singing the Thai national anthem before there will not be any nation left to respect.”)

This brings me to the second point. The official Thai state ideology of “Nation, Religion, Monarchy” (chart satsana phramahakasat) sees people as conformist subjects, not as responsible citizens. According to this trinity, the Thai state depends in its existence on the unity and functioning of these three “institutions,” or “pillars,” not on the democratic capacity of its citizens. The latter merely have a role in uncritically submitting to these three elements, and thereby secure the survival and the unity of the Thai nation.

Here, “nation” is conceptualized as an abstract entity that possesses its own inherent and superior interests, as defined by Thailand’s socio-cultural elite. It is actively promoted by state organizations (government offices, local authorities, schools). In a democracy, such an ideological subjectification should probably not exist, because it collides with the normative-democratic idea of a majoritarian will as formed in an ongoing pluralistic discourse among equal citizens. Ideological products such as “Nation, Religion, Monarchy” normally are key tools for the support of authoritarian regimes. Until today, state officials legitimize their operations by reference to this trinity, although the only reason for their existence is the constitution, based on the sovereignty of the people.

My final point concerns the latent (and sometimes manifest) conflict between monarchism and democracy that has not been resolved since it occurred in 1932. When the civilian leader of the revolution, Pridi Banomyong, had to leave Thailand for good after his failed anti-military “Grand Palace Rebellion” in 1949, much of the political potential for a more citizen-oriented conception of democracy was also lost. Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrats, was founded in 1946 as a royalist-aristocratic defense of monarchist values against incipient citizens’ politics symbolized by Pridi. Six decades later, during the protests by the “People’s Alliance for Democracy” (PAD) in 2006 and 2008, which were heavily framed by royalist symbolism, the Democrats chose the side of the PAD. The protests of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), on the other hand, conspicuously lacked any royal symbols. Rather, their attacks against members of the king’s Privy Council indicated a conception of the Thai monarchy that is very different from what the PAD, the Democrats, and the amatayathipattai stand for.

This fundamental tension between the remains of an earlier stratified top-down societal order, in which all power was vested in the king, and the egalitarian and liberal implications of a democratic polity remains unresolved. In 1982, a well-known academic (PAD ideologue Chai-anand Samudavanija) wrote, “The tensions evident since 1973 are the result of a conflict between two alternative bases of legitimacy: one emanating from traditional hierarchical traditions, the other based on popular sovereignty”. More than a quarter century later, this conflict still exists, and it has gained additional urgency by the imminent issue of succession.

Michael H. Nelson is a Visiting Scholar at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. These are his notes for a presentation at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), 13 May 2009.