To the unfamiliar, Thai politics can be complicated business with a dizzying array of long names and obscure institutions. This piece is intended as a ‘Thai politics 101’ introduction to the key dynamics of Thai governance.
Last updated: April 30th, 2021
What is Thailand’s system of government?
Region: Southeast Asia
Population: ~ 70 million
Religion: 94% Buddhist
Thailand is officially a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary democracy; the official term for the country’s system of governance is “a democratic system with the king as head of state.” Executive authority is vested in the prime minister. Legislative authority is vested in parliament, consisting of the House of Representatives (the lower house) and the Senate (the upper house).
What is the current state of Thai politics in a nutshell?
In 2014, the then-commander of the Royal Thai Army, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, seized power in a military coup. Prayut formed the National Council of Peace & Order which wielded essentially absolute power and appointed himself as prime minister, ruling the country through a military junta.
After repeatedly delaying elections, the military government scheduled elections for 2019. Prayut was nominated by a newly-formed political party, Palang Pracharath, as their prime ministerial candidate. Although Palang Pracharath won a plurality of the popular vote, it failed to win a parliamentary majority and after some constitutional machination (to be detailed later) assembled an unprecedented 12-party coalition government in May. Prayut has thus continued to govern, but this time in what is ostensibly a more democratic framework.
The coronavirus pandemic forced Thailand to enter a national lockdown in late March, but the pandemic was quickly brought under control. In 2020, Thailand was one of the world’s most successful countries in dealing with the coronavirus, with scant local transmission, but the tourism-dependent economy has been struggling mightily with the closed national borders. However, in 2021, a new explosion of cases has led to Thailand’s worst surge yet. Both a halting response to the new surge and a slow and risky vaccine procurement strategy led to renewed criticism of the government and calls for the resignation of the Health Minister, Anutin Charnvirakul.
The government has faced increasing challenges to its rule. It has faced multiple censure debates, and the opposition Future Forward party’s dissolution led to nationwide student protests against the current regime. Although the protests stopped for a short period during the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, they resumed afterwards and are still ongoing.
What are the current protests about, and why are they so unprecedented?
The protestors have demanded the immediate resignation of the Prayut government, amendment of the 2017 constitution and reform of the monarchy. They have primarily been led by student leaders, such as Parit “Penguin” Chiwarak and Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul. The protests have also sparked calls for other forms of social change, such as the abolishment of school uniforms.
Although the protests began as an anti-government effort, they have intensified their focus on the royal institution in recent months. Their demands on royal reform include a reduction in the royal budget and an abolishment of the lese majeste law. Making the monarchy a central focus of the protests is unprecedented and highly controversial in Thailand. Neither King Maha Vajiralongkorn or the government have responded to the demands, although the King stated in an interview with foreign media that “Thailand is the land of compromise.”
Protest numbers have dwindled in recent months, especially after a coronavirus surge starting in January 2021 and the arrest of several protest leaders, including Penguin and Rung.
What are the main political parties?
Thailand has a dizzying diversity of political parties. They tend to fall into three broad groups: 1) parties aligned with the conservative establishment (the right), 2) anti-establishment parties (the left), 3) medium-sized parties that are based around factions or personalities.
Palang Pracharath (116 seats) is the current ruling party and core of the coalition government. The party is closely affiliated with the military and was essentially formed as a vehicle to allow Prayut to continue as prime minister. Four members of the military junta resigned to lead the party into the elections.
The Democrat Party (53 seats), Thailand’s oldest political party, was formerly one of the largest parties in parliament, having produced multiple prime ministers. The party was badly defeated in the 2019 election and is now in coalition with Palang Pracharath. It is seen as close to the conservative, royalist establishment and counts the south and central regions as its main base of support. It is currently led by Deputy Prime Minister Jurin Laksanawisit.
Bhumjaithai (61 seats) is one of Palang Pracharath’s coalition partners. Led by Deputy Prime Minister Anutin Charnvirakul, it is based in Thailand’s east and has a long association with one of Thailand’s godfathers, Newin Chidchob. The party is not particularly ideological and is currently best known for its election pledge to legalize marijuana for medical use.
Pheu Thai (136 seats) is currently the main opposition party and largest party in parliament. It is closely aligned with the now-exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who depending on who you ask is either a populist hero or the evil bogeyman of Thai politics. The party’s stronghold is in the north and northeast. It was previously in government in 2011-2014 but was ousted by the military coup. Key figures in the party currently include Sudarat Keyuraphan and Sompong Amornwiwat.
Move Forward (elected with 81 seats, now down to 55 after suffering defections) is a new party succeeding the Future Forward Party founded by billionaire Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit. The most progressive of Thailand’s political parties, Future Forward was unexpectedly successful in the elections and became the third largest force in parliament. The party was widely popular among the younger generation but equally feared by conservatives. Thanathorn has since been disqualified as MP by the Constitutional Court, and the party was dissolved, leading to its executives being banned from politics. Move Forward, created as a successor party, is now led by Pita Limjaroenrat.
There are a number of other smaller political parties in parliament but they are less politically significant.
Why does Thailand seem to always be in a political crisis?
2001: Thaksin Shinawatra becomes prime minister
2005: Thaksin re-elected to second term
2006: Military coup overthrows Thaksin
2008: Abhisit Vejjajiva becomes prime minister
2011: Yingluck Shinawatra becomes prime minister
2013: Mass protests against Yingluck government begin
2014: Military coup overthrows Yingluck
2019: First general election since military coup
Thai politics since 2001 has revolved around political conflict between Thaksin Shinawatra and and his allies, against a more conservative, military-aligned establishment. Supporters of Thaksin have often been called “red shirts“, while his opponents are usually termed “yellow shirts” due to the color of the shirts they wear at their rallies.
Two events of the late 1990s created a perfect storm. A new constitution was introduced in 1997, which was designed to create strong governments and empower the people, while also introducing institutions such as the Constitutional Court and National Anti-Corruption Commission which could provide a check to politicians. Simultaneously, Thailand’s economy collapsed in the same year, precipitating the Asian financial crisis. The Democrat Party government that came to power was tasked with doling out the IMF-prescribed “bitter medicine” of austerity.
In 2001, business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra used these conditions to sweep to power, easily defeating the unpopular Democrats. He became wildly popular in the relatively poorer north and northeast by enacting policies such as universal healthcare and village subsidies. Thaksin himself was not inclined towards liberal democracy; he disdained parliament, meddled with the press and independent government organs and launched a deadly war on drugs. He was seen as a threat by establishment figures, and the middle and upper class in the central and southern region disliked his populist style and increasingly authoritarian politics. His opponents accused him of vote buying, both directly and indirectly via his policies. Yellow shirt protests began again his government, and although he won an even bigger majority in parliament in the 2005 election, he was ousted by a military coup in 2006. Thaksin has since been charged with corruption and now lives in self-imposed exile.
The military government introduced a new constitution in 2007 and allowed elections, but allies of Thaksin won and returned to power. This led to renewed protests, and eventually a series of judicial rulings felled the Thaksinite parties, allowing Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva to form a coalition government in 2008. His tenure was plagued with red shirt protests, culminating in a bloody military crackdown in May 2010.
In 2011, Abhisit lost re-election to Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, whose Pheu Thai party formed a new government. However, an attempt to pass an Amnesty Bill that would have cleared Thaksin of wrongdoing and allowed him to return to Thailand sparked mass protests. The resulting instability became the pretext for another military coup in 2014, paving the way for Prayut’s assumption of power.
Why is the 2017 constitution significant?
Constitution drafting has virtually become an industry in Thailand, with a new constitution being introduced after almost every military coup. The 2017 constitution, drafted under the military government, is broadly perceived to have facilitated Prayut’s continuation in power. Indeed, a Palang Pracharath figure was quoted as saying that the constitution was “designed for them.” Key features of the 2017 constitution include an unelected senate that joins with the lower house in selecting the prime minister, and a mixed-member proportional representation system which creates smaller parliamentary parties and thus weaker coalition governments.
Eventually, the 2017 constitution paid major dividends for Palang Pracharath. The party did not come anywhere close to winning a majority in parliament, and indeed the parliamentary arithmetic in the lower house looked stacked against them. However, all of the 250 handpicked senators voted for Prayut in the prime ministerial election. Amending the 2017 constitution is a key priority for the opposition.
What are some of the major political fault lines today?
As mentioned previously, one of the most salient divisions has been support for, or opposition to, Thaksin Shinawatra. He remains beloved amongst the rural grassroots for his policies focused on poverty alleviation. He similarly remains extremely detested by many for his populist policies. (In Thailand, populism is closely associated with redistributive policies such as cash handouts), and for his attempts to consolidate power. Thaksin remains influential despite having left the country for over a decade, with key Pheu Thai party figures continuing to fly to meet with him.
Support and opposition for the military and its involvement in politics has also been a key fault line. Democracy and its necessity remains a contested concept in Thailand, and support for pro-military parties such as the PPRP can be seen as proxies for where they stand on this spectrum. The Future Forward party’s success under Thanathorn Juangroongrueangkit has revealed a stark generation gap, with younger Thais much less inclined to support Prayut than the older generation. Indeed, this progressive party has become a particular focus of attacks from the establishment.
What is the role of the military?
Military coups are now relatively rare in the modern world, but they have been commonplace in Thai history. The military has staged 12 successful coup attempts since 1932, and the principle of civilian control over the army has never become ingrained. Thai politics has thus essentially been following a vicious cycle of coup followed by civilian rule followed by coup. Although it seemed like it was professionalizing in the late 1990s, the 2006 coup put to rest the idea that the military would not continue to play an important role in political life. The Shinawatras attempted to reduce military opposition; Thaksin placed his own loyalists in key positions, while Yingluck was generous with the defense budget, but these efforts were unable to prevent coups. The military thus remains one of the most important stakeholders in Thai politics.
It is important, however, not to perceive of the military as a monolithic actor. The army, for example, is ridden with factionalism; Prayut and his allies, for example, hails from the Eastern Tigers faction, but the army is currently under the control of General Apirat Kongsompong, who hails from the Wongthewan faction. General Apirat has not been afraid of the political limelight, taking the stage in October 2019 to lecture the public on his perception that communism was still a national threat.
What is the role of the monarchy?
The monarchy is an extremely important institution in Thailand. The ruling Chakri Dynasty was established in 1782 with the establishment of Bangkok as the national capital. Its early kings led the country through the era of imperialism and established a modern nation-state. However, the 1932 revolution resulted in the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and the end of royal absolutism.
The monarchy was revitalized under King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was widely revered. A unifying force, King Bhumibol launched several projects aimed at rural development and preached for a ‘sufficiency economy’. Reigning for seventy years, he steadily acquired a moral authority that allowed him to intervene in politics during times of crises, most notably in 1992 when he summoned two leaders in an emerging civil war for a televised lecture. Political scientists have noted that a “network monarchy” was developed wherein the king reigned atop a royalist web of proxies.
After 2006, King Bhumibol suffered from increasingly ill health and was succeeded in 2016 by the incumbent monarch, King Maha Vajiralongkorn. The current monarch has taken a more active approach to reigning. During the 2019 election, he issued a royal statement blocking his elder sister, Princess Ubolratana, from running for prime minister under the banner of a pro-Thaksin party.
Kings in Thailand have traditionally been seen as “virtually divine” and the monarchy remains a significant source of legitimacy. The institution is protected by a lese-majeste law which criminalizes criticism of the royal family.
What are the general outlines of Thai foreign policy?
Thailand survived the colonial era by balancing off multiple great powers against one another, particularly the British and the French. Thailand is the oldest US treaty ally in Asia and was a key base for American operations in Indochina during the Cold War.
Relations with the US relations cooled in the aftermath of the 2014 military coup, and instead Thailand moved closer to China. After the 2019 elections, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo stated that he “looks forward to working with the newly formed Royal Thai government to deepen the alliance and partnership between our two nations.” Thailand is a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Thailand’s status as a country led by a former coup-maker has made its relationship with the neighboring Myanmar junta awkward. Prime Minister Prayut chose not to attend the ASEAN Summit on finding a solution in Myanmar in April.
Where can I learn more about Thai political history?
For more about Thai political history since the 1932 revolution, see The Story of Thai Democracy.
For more about Thailand’s politics since 2001, see Thailand in Crisis.
For Thai foreign policy during the Trump administration, see here.
If you want a book, Chris Baker and Pasuk Pongpaichit’s A Short History of Thailand is your best bet.
What are some easy ways to keep up with Thai politics in English?
The largest English-language newspaper (and the only one still in print nationwide) is the Bangkok Post. Other long-standing newspapers include The Nation (right-leaning) and Khaosod English (left-leaning). A newcomer which launched last year is Thai Enquirer (which, by the way, I write for!).
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