♟️ Let’s not overlook classic authoritarians! Understanding Thailand's political regime

The fashion for seeing all authoritarian regimes through the lens of ‘democratic backsliding’ or ‘autocratisation’ has overshadowed our understanding of classic authoritarians' strategies. Thareerat Laohabut focuses on Thailand to illustrate this problem, showing how civil-military relations supporting the regime have been inadequately understood

‘Democratic backsliding’

Hager Ali has argued that a limited, nuanced terminology of authoritarian regimes inevitably affects how we understand regime transformations from an authoritarian perspective. In line with her argument, democratic backsliding and autocratisation are commonly used concepts for defining autocratic transitions. To consolidate authoritarian power, democratically elected authoritarians incrementally change democratic norms while legitimising and embedding undemocratic features in democratic institutions.

Authoritarian transformation is nowadays viewed as a less aggressive and bloodless process. Most research on regime transformations therefore pays scant attention to classic authoritarians. The study of authoritarianism has become overshadowed by backsliding and ‘autocratisation’. This has shifted the focus to democratically elected authoritarians at the expense of classic authoritarian leaders. But even classic authoritarians, including the military, change their strategies of regime transformation.

The promissory coup and unknown post-coup politics

When coup-plotters overthrow an elected government, they invariably justify their intervention as part of a temporary process aimed at improving democratic order under the pretence of legality.

But juntas often prolong their presence through nominally democratic mechanisms. In post-coup politics, overhauling a constitution allows coup-leaders to conduct political purges and use various strategies to legitimise their tenure. Coup-plotters also collaborate with civilians to form political parties as proxies which ensures their electoral success and feigns legitimacy.

Juntas often prolong their presence through nominally democratic mechanisms

Although the literature on democratic backsliding references so-called promissory coups as a mode of backsliding, it overlooks post-coup political strategies and their implications for regime classifications.

Military dominance in Thailand’s political regime

Thailand provides an excellent example to illustrate this. The research on authoritarianism conceptualises Thailand differently to the research on backsliding. So far, the trajectory of Thailand’s political system has been described diversely as semi-democracy, democratic backsliding, military dictatorship, authoritarian state, or hybrid authoritarianism.

Why so? And which perspectives are better at explaining the country's current regime? Authoritarianism research applies a more leader-oriented approach, while scholarship on backsliding emphasises the stage of regime transitions from democracies to autocracies. These distinct perspectives use varying terminology to describe similar phenomena.

Despite the overall perception of Thailand as an autocratic country, the two recent coups have complicated matters

Researchers of authoritarianism identify Thailand as a competitive autocracy with a strong military dominance around the role of ruling actors. In contrast, backsliding scholars categorise Thailand on the basis of democratic features in the context of its regime transitions. Despite the overall perception of Thailand as an autocratic country, the two recent coups have complicated matters. The evolution of Thailand’s political regime cannot be understood by focusing on either the leaders’ roles or the stage of the regime transitions alone: we need both perspectives for a complete picture.

Classifying Thailand’s regimes over time

To demonstrate this, I cross-reference Thailand’s regime classifications since 2006 in V-Dem’s Episodes of Regime Transformation and Geddes, Wright, and Frantz’s Autocratic Regime Data. For each year, I summarise the role of the monarchy, military, and pro-military civilians with their interactions to map how Thai civil-military relations have evolved. Existing research largely overlooks these actors' interactions, including civilian participation in military rule.

Role of monarchy, military, and pro-military civilians and their interactions

Geddes, Wright, and Frantz regime typeV-Dem’s Episodes of Regime TransformationRole of monarchy and proxiesRole of pro-military civiliansRole of military Character of civil-military relations
2006DemocracyElectoral autocracyPrivy Council and monarchy support military coup

Constitutional Court nullifies general election
Mass mobilisation (pro-royalist Yellow-Shirts)
NGOs
Three main opposition parties
Military coup 19 SeptemberPro-royalist Yellow-Shirts, NGOs, and main opposition parties support coup
2007MilitaryClosed autocracyPrivy Councillor becomes interim PM
Constitutional Court dissolves 2006 leading government party, Thai Rak Thai
Military-appointed government
2007–2008DemocracyElectoral autocracyMonarchy supports Yellow-Shirts
Constitutional Court dissolves de facto 2007 leading government party, People Power, a reincarnation of dissolved Thai Rak Thai
Mass mobilisation (pro-royalist Yellow-Shirts)Military-backed plan on parliamentary rebellionParties and former Yellow-Shirt leaders work with military to stage parliamentary rebellion and form military-backed coalition government
2008–2011DemocracyElectoral autocracyMilitary-backed government
2011–2013n/aElectoral autocracyMilitary’s expanded network
2013–2014n/aElectoral autocracyConstitutional Court nullifies 2014 general electionMass mobilisation (pro-royalist PDRC led by former deputy leader of Democrat Party)Military’s role as mediator in political conflictPro-royalist PDRC movement and Democrat Party evidently work to pave way for coup
2014n/aClosed autocracyPrivy Council supports military coupMilitary coup
22 May
2014–2019n/aClosed autocracyTransition of crown from King Rama 9 to Rama 10Non-partisans form military proxy Palang Pracharat Party to prolong coup leader’s premiershipMilitary junta government
(no election)
Palang Pracharat Party is military’s proxy. Civilian party founders eventually propose coup leader as party's PM candidate
2019–presentn/aClosed autocracyCurrent monarch explicitly supports military to continue as PM
Constitutional Court dissolves new anti-military party, Future Forward
Three mainstream parties and other small partiesMilitary-led government
(after 2019 election)
Parties collaborate with juntas to form coalition government

Civil-military relations in Thailand

The table shows that the military could not have successfully staged the two recent coups without combined backing from the monarchy, civilian parties, and pro-royalist movements. In the last fifteen years, the survival of military regimes in post-coup politics relied upon the military’s relations with civilian actors and the monarchy. Traditionally, and structurally, the monarchy plays a significant role in shaping Thailand’s polity. The two coups were, in fact, tacitly approved and supported by the monarchy and its proxies, the Privy Council and the Constitutional Court.

An important difference between the two coups, however, was the changing dynamic of civil-military relations preceding them. Following the defeat of the pro-military Democrat Party (Dem), the military conspired with civilian actors to stage the 2008 parliamentary rebellion, overturning the ruling party from being the winner to the loser of the election. The Dem-led coalition government allowed the military to control the Ministry of Defence. Some Dem members also joined the pro-royalist Yellow-Shirt movement in 2006 and 2008, and were co-opted onto governmental positions.

After the 2014 coup, the military changed its strategy. Instead of working with the Dem, it collaborated with non-partisan politicians to form a new party, the Palang Pracharat Party (PPP). The PPP leads the current coalition government and has implicitly manipulated other coalition parties since the 2019 election.

Over the past fifteen years, the military has nurtured its dominance by gaining tacit approval and support from the monarchy while fortifying its relations with civilian actors. Pro-royalist movements, the military-backed civilian government, and party alliances with the military contributed to the military’s lasting hegemony. On three separate occasions, the Constitutional Court dissolved parties seen as military and monarchy rivals. This paved the way for the military’s political capture in 2008, and facilitated the military-led coalition government in 2019.

Classic authoritarians

Present-day authoritarianism has changed, and empirical data collected from 1945 to 2019 shows that the trend of increasing coups across the world will likely continue. Recent research on autocracies, however, focuses on democratically elected authoritarians and how they subjugate democracy. Unfortunately, it overlooks the changing roles of classic authoritarians.

Empirical data collected since 1945 suggests that the trend of increasing coups around the world will continue

Thailand is representative of the dynamic changes taking place in present-day global authoritarian regimes. The very different classifications and misclassifications of Thailand across datasets, like Geddes, Wright, and Frantz and V-Dem, are symptomatic of how current regime classifications fail to accurately grasp these dynamics.

Regardless of specific civil-military relations, more research is needed on how autocratic actors use non-traditional strategies to seek democratic legitimacy. It is common for autocrats to appropriate democratic engagement and build relationships with non-military actors to cultivate their power. Accordingly, the scholarship on authoritarianism needs frameworks that capture these non-traditional dynamics. Unless it does, democracy-driven approaches will continue to overshadow them.

♟️ No.17 in The Loop's Autocracies with Adjectives series examining the nuanced differences between autocratic regimes around the world

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Thareeat Laohabut
Thareeat Laohabut
Research Fellow and PhD Candidate, Geschwister Scholl Institute of Political Science, Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Thareerat's research focuses are in two strands: comparative party politics and party systems, focusing on European politics and democratic transformation and autocratisation in Southeast Asia, and sometimes in Thailand specifically.

Prior to joining GSI, she was a scholarship recipient and graduate of the Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degrees in European Politics and Society with three mobilities at Charles University, Leiden University, and Pompeu Fabra University.

She holds BA in political science from Thammasat University, together with a one-year Erasmus exchange at LMU Munich.

thareeratlaohabut.wordpress.com

She tweets @t_laohabut

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