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
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Geddes, Wright, and Frantz regime type||V-Dem’s Episodes of Regime Transformation||Role of monarchy and proxies||Role of pro-military civilians||Role of military||Character of civil-military relations|
|2006||Democracy||Electoral autocracy||Privy Council and monarchy support military coup|
Constitutional Court nullifies general election
|Mass mobilisation (pro-royalist Yellow-Shirts)|
Three main opposition parties
|Military coup 19 September||Pro-royalist Yellow-Shirts, NGOs, and main opposition parties support coup|
|2007||Military||Closed autocracy||Privy Councillor becomes interim PM|
Constitutional Court dissolves 2006 leading government party, Thai Rak Thai
|2007–2008||Democracy||Electoral autocracy||Monarchy 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 rebellion||Parties and former Yellow-Shirt leaders work with military to stage parliamentary rebellion and form military-backed coalition government|
|2008–2011||Democracy||Electoral autocracy||Military-backed government|
|2011–2013||n/a||Electoral autocracy||Military’s expanded network|
|2013–2014||n/a||Electoral autocracy||Constitutional Court nullifies 2014 general election||Mass mobilisation (pro-royalist PDRC led by former deputy leader of Democrat Party)||Military’s role as mediator in political conflict||Pro-royalist PDRC movement and Democrat Party evidently work to pave way for coup|
|2014||n/a||Closed autocracy||Privy Council supports military coup||Military coup|
|2014–2019||n/a||Closed autocracy||Transition of crown from King Rama 9 to Rama 10||Non-partisans form military proxy Palang Pracharat Party to prolong coup leader’s premiership||Military junta government|
|Palang Pracharat Party is military’s proxy. Civilian party founders eventually propose coup leader as party's PM candidate|
|2019–present||n/a||Closed autocracy||Current monarch explicitly supports military to continue as PM|
Constitutional Court dissolves new anti-military party, Future Forward
|Three mainstream parties and other small parties||Military-led government|
(after 2019 election)
|Parties collaborate with juntas to form coalition government|
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.
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.