OPINION: Thai conservatives should embrace democracy

The Revolutionary Council’s aim,” it was proclaimed, “is to turn Thailand into a democratic state.” To achieve that goal, “mistakes of the past” must be corrected by fully revoking “the current system of democracy that has been wholly transplanted from foreign nations.” The task, now, is to “build a democracy that is appropriate for the special circumstances and characteristics of Thailand.” 

The Khana Ratsadon, the party that brought about the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy, had imposed on Thailand what coup-maker Sarit Thanarat saw as an immature democracy.

What was needed was a “Thai-style democracy,” as Sarit chose to call it; his “revolution” would usher in a new style of governance, a paternalistic authoritarianism but drawing on Thai characteristics from our distant history.

Sarit’s rule itself was not long; he assumed the premiership in 1959 and became the only prime minister to die in office in 1963. But his intention to build a Thai-style democracy has gripped the imagination of some in Thailand ever since. Over six decades later, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha himself has spoken of the need for Thailand to be a democracy — adding, of course, that it “must be a Thai-style democracy.” 

The concept of localizing a political ideology is not unique — think of China’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — but just as Chinese socialism was quite capitalist, Thai-style democracy has a rather authoritarian slant.

Just like Sarit’s democracy with Thai characteristics, the Thai-style democracy delivered by the 2017 Constitution is not a conventional Western-style democracy. It can be described in many ways — a guided democracy, perhaps, or a semi-democracy — but a full democracy it is not. 

This lingering preoccupation with ensuring that Thailand does not attain a full liberal democracy ensures that one of the main political fault lines in Thailand today, almost 90 years after the 1932 revolution, remains the question of whether or not Thailand should be democratic. 

The terms “conservative” and “liberals” should be used lightly, of course, for their equivalent Thai labels (anurakniyom and seriniyom) are seldom used in everyday discourse. But it would not be unreasonable to state generally that conservative groups in Thailand have been far less inclined towards democracy than liberal ones. 

One only has to read right-wing social media pages to find that bashing democracy is extremely fashionable. “What can democracy deliver that a dictatorship cannot do faster?”, many often wonder. “Why swap out authoritarian stability for the corrupt politicians?” Stability, tradition, morality: far better, they argue, to prize these values than democracy and liberalism. 

Take the career of Anek Laothamathas. A storied academic, he was a liberal in his younger days, participating in the October 14th protests against Sarit’s successor, Thanom Kittikachorn. 

Anek has said since that he regrets his participation. If he had known that democracy would turn out to be like this, he would rather have let Thanom keep ruling. His most recent political move was to co-found the Action Coalition for Thailand, a heavily conservative political party in Prayut’s coalition. Such sentiment is common among Thailand’s right-wing; that democracy sounded good on paper but bitter experience, they say, has shown that a benign dictatorship would be preferable. 

Yet, conservatives who advocate for authoritarianism are a dime a dozen in Thailand. What has been missing are pro-democracy conservatives in Thailand, people who would adhere to a conservatism divorced from its authoritarian leanings.

After all, it is natural in every society to have both left and right wings. Difference of opinion is the essence of a democratic society. One result of our democratic society is that the large number of people who do have anti-democratic perspectives have their preferences reflected in the stances of several parties. 

But as it stands, a Thai who leans conservative in their political leaning but respects the ideals of democracy would have no political party to call their home. And this is an unfortunate state of affairs, for to be conservative should not have to automatically equate with being anti-democratic. 

Take the Democrat Party in the 1990s. The party won an electoral majority and governed during Thailand’s democratic blossoming. It was guided by a conservative ideology — faithfully administering, for example, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) austerity programme that required painful spending cuts. 

More recently, in the 2019 general election, the party reinvented itself as a pro-democracy alternative to the overtly authoritarian Palang Pracharath party. Not that they were fully credible as small-d democrats, given that the party had boycotted two elections in the recent past, but they were an option for someone uncomfortable voting for either Prayut or a more progressive party. 

That strategy failed spectacularly as the Democrats slumped to their biggest electoral loss in decades, ending the possibility that there could be a conservatism separate from authoritarianism.

A twenty-party coalition, including the weakened Democrats, has now committed itself to perpetuating this semi-democracy. Those in the coalition parties who were unwilling to commit themselves to this mission quickly found themselves without a political home. 

But just because pro-democracy conservatism did not work the first time does not mean that it cannot work in the future, under inspired leadership and a more credible commitment to democratic ideals. With the ongoing implosion of the Democrat Party, is there room for such a party to emerge? One would hope so, given the dissatisfaction amongst many in the party for joining the Prayut coalition. 

And indeed, even a liberal would concede that such a movement would be beneficial to Thailand. Why?

Firstly, conservatism is a legitimate political ideology that deserves representation in a democratic manner. One may, for example, disagree with ending military conscription. Or they may want to continue with a system of centrally appointed provincial governors. These are legitimate policy arguments, and a party can be pro-democracy and yet advocate for preserving elements of the status quo. Having these opposing opinions expressed in a democratic framework is healthy for governance.

Secondly, the only way to bring about true peace in Thailand is for all sides to accept electoral politics. Stability tends to be a prized goal for conservatives, yet this dysfunctional system of semi-democracy does nothing to bring that about. It has instead generated a weak government whose legitimacy continues to be challenged by the majority of the country that did not vote for it. 

Finally, it is in the long-term electoral interests of conservatives themselves to ensure that they accept democracy as the only viable political system. The obstruction of democratisation will remain unappealing to new voters, many of whom voted to support the progressive Future Forward Party in 2019. 

Conservatism in Thailand has defined itself less by what it is for and more for what it stands against. It is anti-Thaksin — never mind that Thaksin himself was hardly a democrat. And the most effective way to beat Thaksin, they concluded, was not through the ballot box but by circumventing it. 

But the truth is that Thaksin looms less in the imagination of many younger voters, many of whom will not remember much of Thaksin’s excesses. And even if they do, they look at the Prayut government and see a mirror image of what Thaksin is accused of, from the refusal of respecting democratic norms to the sprinkling of short-term cash handouts.

A conservatism oriented merely against democracy and a political exile does not have a sustainable future. It will not satisfy younger voters to be committed towards a ‘Thai-style democracy’ if that perverts true democratic outcomes.

Instead, conservatives should begin trying to win hearts and minds and playing by the rules of the game instead of scrapping them. A pro-democracy conservative party would not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it would do much to strengthen the foundations of Thailand’s governance. 

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