A Cultural Constitution in Transition

In 1985, the historian Nidhi Eoseewong introduced the concept of a cultural constitution in Thailand. Thailand’s written constitutions, he observed, are frequently torn up: charters so easily replaced cannot possibly be worth very much. 

But the cultural constitution, which Nidhi describes as the “political culture which is the true supreme arrangement of power relations,” cannot be discarded so readily. “Laws, ministerial orders, and regulations cannot contravene the provisions in the political culture or in this true constitution.”

Thailand’s cultural constitution experienced one great disruption in 2001, when Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party swept to power. That election had injected Thai politics with its first real taste of an economic populism that reminded the rural masses to use their sovereign power to elect a government they felt would speak for them. The conflict between an ascendant majority and a ruling minority, still empowered by Thailand’s unwritten charter, became the story of two decades of Thai politics.

Thaksin, of course, was felled not once but twice by his own excesses both personal and political, allowing the military to eventually put the process of amending the cultural constitution on hold for over eight years. But deep freezing Thailand’s democratic experiment only accelerated a second disruption in Thai politics. After being enthralled with populism, Thailand came to embrace progressivism instead. 

If Thaksin’s victories had been a call to move away from the old technocracy and weak factional governments of the 1990s, Move Forward’s victory was a repudiation of military tutelage and guided democracy. Key tenets of Thailand’s traditional institutions were now being questioned on a scale never seen before. A conservative ad had asked before the election: “Do you really want to see Thailand change?” 14 million Thais answered in the affirmative.

The problem, however, is that 14 million Thais represent a plurality but not a majority. Thailand’s cultural constitution is changing, but the amendments are still very much under debate.

Consider the fact that Move Forward had won about 38 percent of the popular vote: the most of any party, to be sure, but only slightly more than how the Democrats had performed in 2011 in the defeat that put them back into the political wilderness. That Move Forward and Pheu Thai had together won a landslide was a clear message that the generals had to go. But Move Forward’s particular brand of progressivism had received less an overwhelming mandate and more a hesitant endorsement from the Thai people. 

“The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” So wrote Antonio Gramsci. Indeed, a variety of symptoms — particularly morbid for Move Forward — have already appeared. 

That the Senate will perform its unwritten role in Thailand’s cultural constitution as a firewall against the popular will was to be expected. At the same time, the possible disqualification of Pita Limjaroenrat from office due to a technicality is hardly without precedent. 

But the fact also remains that even if Thailand were a regular parliamentary democracy where a Move Forward-led coalition would already have been seated, the party would still be facing several challenges in trying to govern — not least from its own allies.

There is a reason, after all, why Move Forward was powerless to resist its coalition partners’ demands to exclude the party’s push for amending the lèse-majesté law from the list of coalition priorities. When Sereepisuth Temeeyaves assures Senators that they should fail comfortable with voting for Pita because Move Forward’s own ostensible allies will be sure to block any attempt to amend Section 112, it reflects a landscape where Move Forward still remains decidedly outside the political mainstream.

Beyond lèse-majesté, if Move Forward is able to form a government, it will likely run into a host of other obstacles to its priorities. A business community spooked by both the party’s policies and unused to the relatively untraditional CV of the likely future finance minister, Sirikanya Tansakul, is already sending signals of discontent. A bureaucracy known to be perfectly capable of placing ‘poison pills’ may not take kindly to their new, unconventional masters. 

Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak argued in a recent piece for Nikkei Asia that Thailand’s conservative establishment should seek compromise while they can. This is true. If pushing the populist governments of Thaksin out of power acted as such an accelerant for the reformist progressivism that Move Forward came to champion, denying Move Forward their legitimate claim to office will only add more fuel to the fire. 

At the same time, however, regardless of who takes office, politicians of all stripes will have to compromise not because they can but because they must. With no party dominant in parliament, policymaking will have to reflect a cultural constitution in transition.

The clock cannot be turned back. Change is here. What remains to be seen is how all the actors on our political stage seek to manage that change. 


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