More than one month after the election Thailand is edging ever closer to the formation of a democratically elected government. The coup by stealth has not eventuated, perhaps in part due to the realisation that the international credibility of the coup-makers (and their backers) would be strained beyond breaking point.But what does the formation of a new, elected, government mean for Thailand’s democratic development. According to one respected observer of Thai politics, very little. In a recent article written for Asia Sentinel Michael Connors argues that
The picture of coup and anti-coup forces contending in Thailand is simplistic at best.
Last week the international media was awash in stories of a ‘Thai stealth coup’. They portrayed the Council for National Security, the military grouping that deposed the caretaker government of Thaksin Shinawatra in September 2006, as thwarting the formation of a government by the People’s Power Party (PPP) which won a plurality in the December 23 elections. In news coverage and commentary, the Election Commission of Thailand has been presented as the council’s stooge. The Thaksin PR machine could not have hoped for more.
People with a short memory assume the current election commissioners were chosen by the Council. The current commissioners were actually appointed while Thaksin was acting as caretaker prime minister. In early September 2006, pro-Thaksin members of the caretaker Senate voted as a bloc to select the five commissioners from 10 forwarded by the judiciary. The bloc-vote ensured that anti-Thaksin nominations for the election commission were eliminated.
Now, given this history, and the fact that the commission is a conflicted organization in which there remain many Thaksin supporters, one might ask whether it is accurate to claim that it is an instrument of a ‘stealth coup’.
It may be preferable to see the situation in different terms. … In these circumstances it is obvious that the Council for National Security might seek to influence the election commission. However, whether the council succeeds is a matter for empirical investigation.
Although the struggle between strategically relevant opposing forces in Thailand is presented through the idiom of democracy, the opposing forces who stand by the coupsters are actually an inter-sectoral mix of business, bureaucracy, police, military and royalists who care little for genuine democracy.
The acute state of Thai politics at this present time has little to do with democracy. An elite struggle that goes back at least a decade is manifest: a new brand of capitalism that seeks to break from the quasi-feudalistic hold of monarchy is in motion, but it is a force that dares not declare its name. Enlightened Thaksin forces want a bourgeois revolution against the current way the monarchy and networks surrounding it work, but they dare not declare their mission. These forces – a mix of the old left, old right, capitalists and technocrats – mobilise forces under a banner of right wing populism, including Buddhist chauvinism, but they have yet to elaborate any genuinely ideological position to challenge the force that thwarts their emergence. They are also hostile to liberal forms of democracy.
At this moment in time it appears that the contending fractions of the Thai elite are about to enter the final round of a long struggle. It remains to be seen if they will step back from the brink and instead embrace compromise. One thing, however, is certain: as long as contending elites fail to agree to any rules of the game and instead wage open political warfare for complete victory, Thailand’s chance of returning to some form of liberal democracy are slim.
I am happy for others to argue about the specific role of the Election Commission (see Republican’s comment 28 here). In talking about a “coup by stealth” my intention was to highlight the ongoing attempts to discredit electoral legitimacy by means of the persistent charge of “vote buying.” This more general point about persistent elite attempts to claim that the Thai electorate is unfit to choose its government is one that I would expect Connors to agree with. Indeed it is one of the core themes of his important book on Democracy and National Identity in Thailand.
But I find Connor’s argument that Thai politics can be understood primarily in terms of intra-elite conflict more disturbing. It reflects, I think, an unwillingness to appreciate the significance of electoral participation for the Thai population. In my, very favourable, review of Connor’s book I made the following comment:
Connors textual emphasis is consistent with this primary focus on the “ideological moments” of democracy rather than its social or institutional forms. This focus contributes to what I see as the books key weakness-a failure to adequately address the ways in which democracy discourse has been disseminated, consumed and incorporated into local practice. … This weakness is, I feel, linked to a relatively under-theorised sense of the local, and, in particular, the rural local. Like many in Thailand at present, Connor’s is keen to document the “untold symbolic and real violence that is done in the name of sameness” but his sympathy for the local – although combined with an incisive critique of localism – tends to lead to an overly simplistic dichotomy between the state and the village. In his work there is a tendency to reduce the village to a formerly “bounded” site of state incorporation and local resistance (“the many acts of unexamined resistance that sustain difference and dignity in daily life”). Connors’ account is convincing in demonstrating the disciplinary and regulatory intent of elite democracy discourse but much less so in placing this discourse in the context of a multi-faceted contact zone of practical, institutional and aspirational diversity. Missing, for example, in Connor’s somewhat polarised model is a sense of the extent to which rural people’s desires to engage with state structures – in order to benefits from the resource flows that such engagement can provide – has prompted strategic manipulation and subtle modification of projects of national citizen formation. Incorporation and resistance seem to be somewhat inadequate tools for understanding these multifaceted processes of “democradialogue.” ((Apologies for this inelegant word. It was a reference to Connors’ central concept of “democrasubjection.”))
This lack of engagement with the local underpins Connors recent argument in Asia Sentinel. Of course, in Thailand (as in any other country) there is much in politics that can be understood in terms of intra-elite conflict. But to focus exclusively on the elite dimension is to lose sight of the extent to which the political process is also shaped by the desires, hopes, fears, aspirations and policy agendas of the electorate itself. Of course, Thailand’s democratic development has a long way to go. The return of a democratically elected government is not everything, but it is a crucially important step. And it is a step that could be all too easily undermined by the view that the Thai electorate has little role to play in the “acute state of Thai politics.”