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Why Thailand’s junta feels it needs a veneer of legitimacy

by August 13, 2016 General

Military juntas with autocratic agendas do not promise elections to cede power. Instead, they fabricate an appearance of democratic change in order to avoid it. More specifically, by allowing civilian governments to come to the fore, they hope to legitimise their now indirect, but continuing, rule.

It is in this way Thailand’s recent referendum, and the new draft constitution it endorsed, must be seen. Sure, citizens were free to vote in this referendum. But no one was permitted openly to criticise the constitution’s provisions, on pain of 10 years in prison. And in stark partisan contrast, the military sent teams of campaigners out over the countryside to pressure and cajole doubtful villagers in support of the charter.

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Similarly, with the motion passed and the constitution in place, citizens will be free to vote in a parliamentary election, probably late next year. But no party will be able to gain an outright majority. Through various mechanisms, parties will be capped in the number of seats they can win, herding them into conflicted coalitions and self-limiting governments. And just in case a government still shows worrisome signs of coherence and purpose, its policy choices can be overturned by the Senate that the military will fully appoint. For added protection, the Senate will also join the lower house in selecting the country’s prime minister. And should even those measures fail, the charter offers a nuclear option, legally sanctioning the military’s ousting a government with which it loses patience.

In creating the appearance but not the substance of democratic change, the militaryis aligning its regime with a mode that has grown common around the world. It is often called ‘hybrid’ politics, and under it elections are heavily manipulated, yet still exude a whiff of competitiveness. Usually a single political party then dominates, as in Singapore, Malaysia, and Cambodia, regularly besting the opposition and ruling directly. But in Thailand, the military prevails. And with safeguards now installed, the military will stand back, content to let the election play out. It knows that any new government that emerges will be a fractious coalition, fronting for the military’s indirect but continuing rule.

But why is the military in Thailand bothering even with hybrid politics? Why doesn’t it simply persist in ruling openly and implacably? Mass education, cross-national migration, and feisty social media in Thailand, like elsewhere, have raised levels of popular awareness and organisational know-how. Thus, while over the past decade or so democracy may have lost some shine, opinion surveys still show that for most Thai citizens, especially in the north, it remains their preferred framework for organising political life. In milieus like this, naked military juntas – like spouting dictators, once so widespread – are wasteful and unfashionable in their repression. Accordingly, juntas and dictators are today nearly extinct. Thus, since its last coup two years ago, Thailand has found itself in the rare and awkward company of Egypt.

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Much better, then, the military in Thailand now calculates, to forge hybrid politics. By cloaking its rule with democratic imagery, the legitimacy this produces can help the military control citizens more efficiently. Thus it can scale back costly coercion, even as it keeps its grip on state power and vast financial largesse. It can also keep a free hand in deploying the superior capacities that it imagines itself to possess in dealing with Thailand’s daunting challenges: venomous societal schisms; the nearing ascension of a new monarch; blighted industrial prospects; scandalous human-trafficking; and a perilous dependence on China.

We must wait to see whether this appearance, but hardly substance, of democratic change might really produce the legitimacy the military covets. Leaders of the Puea Thai party, curator of Thaksin Shinawatra’s populist legacy, have already intimated deep grievances over the draft constitution. After all, with Puea Thai in its various guises having won every competitive election it was allowed to contest since the turn of the millennium, it is the party that the military most targets. But Puea Thai’s nemesis, Abhisit Vejjajiva, leader of the Democrat Party, has also signalled his dissatisfaction with the charter. And the referendum process itself revealed the scepticism of ordinary citizens; while a little more than 60 per cent of voters supported the draft constitution, less than 60 per cent of those eligible even turned out.

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Though the constitution’s endorsement may be muffled, we can be sure that the military will proceed with its election. But we can also be sure that whether it legitimates the military’s indirect rule or fails to, this election will do nothing to improve Thailand’s chance for democracy. Worse comes to worse, the military will sooner dial back to renew its acquaintance with Egypt.