The development of non-liberal regimes on the road to democracy is a highly regarded subject of study, for this process has proved to be much more tenuous than the initial overthrowing of the previous regime, and often results in failure. The political system in Thailand has gone through numerous counts of constitutional changes, coups d’état, and civil revolts since the 1937 downfall of absolute monarchy. Historically, the process taken by political systems from that of authoritarianism and monarchies has been directed towards a liberal democratic model that privileges the right of citizens to elect representatives and choose the form of government. This ideal, however, is often critiqued and due to the fragility of the situation is often tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful. The circumstances in Thailand are unique in that despite the move away from absolute monarchy, the King has actually remained central within the hearts of the Thai people as a nationalist figure, consequently maintaining his modern relevance and slowing this process. An alternative to this process, however, is a reconsideration of the end goal of liberalism.
The conflict between royalists and populists seems to be central to the current difficulties in Thailand (as is also analysed here). Rodan and Juayasuriya name “the powerful role of entrenched social and political interests tied to the monarchial [sic] institutions” as one of the main causes of the 2006 coup ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, as his populist policies clashed with interests of those tied to the monarchy. The most recent military coup in May 2014 reportedly took place in order to end the violent confrontation between then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, sister to Thaksin and allegedly loyal to his policies, and opponents to her party. As the Wall Street Journal reported, protesters sought to replace the Pheu Thai Party with a “royally appointed administration”, signalling a desire to return to a monarchical system.
Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party’s policies of populism and support for the rural community won its majority vote in 2001 through democratic elections. However, these policies are largely forms of resistance against a neoliberal, globalist economy, flying in the face of what Western societies see to be as modern and democratic progress, and are upheld only by a majority rural population. On the other hand, the current form of government in place since May 2014 has the potential to block any factions of the Thai Rak Thai Party and the Pheu Thai Party from participating in future elections (see Shaviv and The Economist), another breach of what is considered to be democratic leadership. A constitutional monarchy may be the closest form to a Western society that Thailand has come to, but after 18 constitutions and 12 military coups since its instatement in 1932, it would seem that the system has been doomed from the start. Compromise and discussion are at the heart of what democracy and liberal values claim to be, but the situation in Thailand contains elements that scholars have pronounced as mutually exclusive. The current claims for legitimacy that rest within the monarchy, the military and the rural populists in Thailand cannot coexist and certainly do not line up with the West’s vision of a modern society. These issues, as in the case with many other developing nations, appear to be impervious to attempts to impose certain political and economic values onto them and require a much more organic resolution.
Clashes between royalist sentiments, military coups and democratic yet populist practices have made for a conflict that does not seem to have a compromise. Young suggests that doing away with the idea of democracy as a West-invented idea may be a step in the right direction. With the West declaring such fixed ideals of liberalism as the be all and end all of what is right in the world, we are deprived the option of a pluralised view of democracy. In the case of Thailand, the mix between democracy and monarchy is a confusing one, and has led to the multiplicity of voices vying for power, but could equally resolve itself in a manner that hybridises different forms of power, a possible path for further research.