Grigoris Markou-Phanuwat Lasote
Postgraduate students of Political Analysis in the School of Political Science, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.
In recent years, Thailand has been continuously facing enormous political and social crises, which resulted in the 2014 coup d’état, the second military coup within the past 8 years. This extremely difficult situation has been predominantly provoked by economic problems, political conflict as well as the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra within Thai politics. Thaksin Shinawatra is a Thai business tycoon and politician who founded the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) in 1998 and became Prime Minister in 2001. Thaksin’s political discourse was organized according to an antagonistic schema and distinguished between the “people” and the “elites”, constructing thus two chains of equivalences. His populism was a response to social demands of the large masses of Thai people for a better life. However the rise of Thaksin in power was not accepted by the upper and middle class and the elites of the country. The social conflicts between the “non-privileged” people and the middle class and elites led to the coup d’état of 2006. In this paper, we aim to explore some of the particular characteristics of the political discourse articulated by Thaksin Shinawatra before the elections and the coup d’état of 2006. Taking into account the theoretical insights of Ernesto Laclau, Cas Mudde and others, we will argue that it constitutes a populist discourse which developed over time in response to social demands and has deeply influenced Thai politics.
Keywords: Democracy, Populism, Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai Rak Thai Party, coup d’état, elections 2006.
*A part of this paper (by the title Populism in Asia: The case of Thaksin in Thailand) was presented in the “International Conference on Populism and Democracy” , which was organized under research program “Populismus: Populist Discourse and Democracy”, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, in 26-28/06/2015.
In recent years, Thailand has been facing a serious political and social crisis, which resulted in 2014 in a coup d’état, the second military coup within 8 years. This extremely difficult situation has been predominantly provoked by economic problems, political conflict as well as the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra within Thai politics.
Thaksin Shinawatra is a Thai business tycoon and a populist politician who founded the Thai Rak Thai Party (TRT) in 1998. He became Prime Minister in 2001 and won the elections of 2005. In 2005 Thaksin was criticized for corruption and authoritarianism. Many people were organized demonstrations against Thaksin, under the leadership of “People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)”. The truth is that the rival parties and the elites of the country were aware that populist Thaksin was not a politician who can serve their interests as well as their power base in politics. Thaksin tried to stop the political conflict and chaos through the elections of 2006. He won the elections of 2006 (that were boycotted by the rival parties), but the demonstrations had still remained. Finally, Thaksin was overthrown in a military coup in 2006.
In this paper, we explore some of the particular characteristics of the political discourse articulated by Thaksin Shinawatra before the elections and coup d’état of 2006. Taking into account the theoretical insights of Ernesto Laclau and others, we argue that it constitutes a populist discourse which has developed over time in response to social demands and has deeply influenced Thai politics. Our main hypothesis is that although Thaksin’s populism caused severe political instability, at the same time it contributed to the participation and mobilization of broad masses in the political scene. It brought about new ideas of democracy and a social movement (Red Shirts) which demands the removal of military interventions in politics.
Theorizing Populism: minimum definition
Before we move on to the empirical part of our paper, let us briefly visit the theoretical discussions around the notion of populism. Populism is one of the most contested concepts in social sciences and also a notoriously elusive and slippery concept. It appeared initially as a political doctrine of “Populist Party” during the late 19th century in the USA (other cases: Narodnik movement in Russia, agrarian movement of Eastern Europe and the Balkans during the interwar period, Poujadisme in France, Peron in Argentina, Vargas in Brazil, Le Pen in France, SYRIZA in Greece etc.).
Two of the most influential scholars who studied the concept of populism are Ernesto Laclau and Margaret Canovan, and they have identified two key features of the populist reason: a) the direct appeal to the people and b) anti-elitism, the attack against an opponent. Canovan argues that: “Populism in modern democracies is best seen as an appeal to ‘the people’ against both the established structure of power and the dominant ideas and values of the society. [ . . . ] They involve some kind of revolt against the established structure of power in the name of the people”. Cas Mudde defines populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”. The key feature of populism is the compatibility with any ideology, economic and social policy, with any polity. As Paul Taggart mentioned, populism is possessed by a “chameleonic” nature.
But is populism a corrective or a threat for democracy? According to Mudde and Kaltwasser, populism can have positive and negative effects on the quality of democracy. Based on these theoretical approaches we will analyze the political discourse articulated by Thaksin Shinawatra before the elections of 2006. Does his discourse fulfil the criteria highlighted by Ernesto Laclau and others?
The Political Discourse of Thaksin Shinawatra (elections 2006)
In recent years Thailand has been struggling with intractable political conflict. The political crisis has inflicted severe collateral damage on the country, eroding the quality of governance and undermining the rule of law. The 2006 elections were boycotted by the rival parties (Democrat Party, Thai Nation Party and Great People’s Party) that opposed Thaksin’s participation in politics (they blamed him for corruption). The rival parties were aware that Thaksin was not a politician who can serve their interests as well as their power base in politics. Even through the elections were boycotted, Thaksin still insisted on participating without the rest of the political parties.
The main questions we purport to answer are the following: Is the discourse articulated by Thaksin Shinawatra a populist discourse? Does it fulfil the two criteria highlighted by Ernesto Laclau: a central reference to “the people” and an equivalential, antagonistic discursive logic?
Thaksin’s discourse indeed divided society into two opposing groups, and identified the people of these groups: on the one side he recognized “the grassroots, the non-privileged people”, while on the other side he saw the “elite, aristocracy and royalists” of the country. Let us first explore the status of “the people” in Thaksin’s discourse.
The “people” whom Thaksin was addressing were defined as the poor and non-privileged; mainly agriculturists and farmers of Thailand. Thaksin maintained that he had got the feel of the non-privileged people, because he had grown in a poor family. Through a simple and emotionally charged language, he tried to “unite” with his people, the poor people. In his discourse, the fact that at present he is one of the most successful entrepreneurs and politicians, does not make him forget that in the past he had been among the very poor. As he pointed out: “…I understand the situation of poor people who build up a fortune by themselves. Why do I understand? Because I am a countryman and came to the city center for the sake of a better future…”. The call upon “the people” in Thaksin’s political discourse is closely linked with the demand for democracy. Thaksin stressed that “democracy is the power of the people, by the people and for the people”. In this context, we can assert that “the people” does constitute a central reference in the political discourse of Thaksin.
However, we should also investigate the logic that governs Thaksin’s discourse, as well as identify the enemies that it constructs.
The enemy for Thaksin is the corrupt elite and institutions that resisted the way to democracy and elections, those who protested against the legally elected government. Specifically, the enemy for Thaksin is the Democrat Party (rival party), the business elite, the corrupt institutions (Constitutional Court, State Audit Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission etc.) and the military, the Privy Council and royalists. Particularly, the Democratic Party had always been accused by Thaksin that it was a party that tried to change the politics by illegal ways. His accusation included the independent institutions that were depicted as corrupt and unresponsive to the people’s mandate. In Thaksin’s view, the corrupt institutions, the military, the Privy Council and the royalists did not respect the decision of the people: “Why do not they want elections? Why do not they respect the people?” “We should not fear the judgment of the people…”.
There is no doubt that the discourse of Thaksin is organized according to an antagonistic schema. It distinguishes between “us” (the People=poor, non-privileged) and “them” (the elites= the corrupt institutions, the conservative businessmen, the military, the Privy Council, Aristocracy and the Royalists) constructing thus two chains of equivalences at war with each other. The remaining question is the following: Is Thaksin’s populism a threat or a corrective for (liberal) democracy?
Table 1. Election Results of Thailand (2001/2005/2006)
|Election Results 2001||Election Results 2005||Election Results 2006|
|Thai Rak Thai||40.6||Thai Rak Thai||60.70||Thai Rak Thai||61.1|
|Democrat Party||26.6||Democrat Party||18.3||Democrat Party||boycott|
|New Aspiration Party||07.0||New Aspiration Party||0.4|
|National Development Party||06.1|
|Thai Nation Party||05.3||Thai Nation Party||11.4||Thai Nation Party||boycott|
|Great People’s Party||8.3||Great People’s Party||boycott|
|Source: Office of the Election Commission of Thailand, www.ect.go.th|
Concluding remarks: A Threat or a corrective for democracy?
Thaksin, by employing a populist discourse (he was not a populist politician from the beginning), managed to convince the majority of society, especially the poor and lower classes, to follow him faithfully. His populism facilitated the unification of the forces of the non-privileged people for pursuing their interests through the political processes. However, his populist rhetoric had an important effect on middle class, royalists, bureaucracy and military, specifically on the dispute of their political and economic interests. The fear over Thaksin’s personalized authoritarian rule and populist appeal turned into anger and resentment, which led to the creation of a movement (PAD or the Yellow shirts), against Thaksin, but also against the electoral democracy.
But, was Thaksin an authoritarian politician? It is true that TRT party’s government seems benefited from new constitutional provisions designed to strengthen the prime minister and create more stable governments. Moreover, Thaksin’s government neutralized the new bodies set up by the constitution to act as checks and balances on the enhanced power of the executive. Simultaneously, several government decisions seemed to benefit Thaksin’s family business (his own family wealth tripled over his four year term) and also reasserted tight control over the media.
Although Thaksin was accused of being an authoritarian politician, he is still supported by many poor people. The coup of 2006 and the subsequent attempts to eliminate Thaksin’s influence by military operations and judicial decisions helped to provoke the first mass movement in Thai political history. The “Red Shirts” try to counterattack the “Yellow Shirts” movement and to support Thaksin’s power base in the country. But the most important fact is that “Red Shirts” movement is inoculated with democratic ideas. The “Red Shirts” movement provokes major political instability and crisis in the present, but it brought to the fore the question about the road of Thai democratization.
Baker Chris- Phongpaichit Pasuk, A History of Thailand, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014.
Canovan Margaret, “Trust the people! Populism and the Two faces of Democracy”, Political Studies, 47 (1), 1999.
Kongkirati Prajak, “The Rise and Fall of Electoral Violence in Thailand: Changing Rules, Structures and Power Landscapes: 1997–2011”, Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Volume 36, Number 3, December 2014.
Laclau Ernesto, “Four answers for populism: An Interview with Ernesto Laclau”, Science and Society, Volume 12, 2004, pp. 213-218.*
MacGregor Marshall Andrew, A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, Zed Books Ltd, London, 2014.
Mudde Cas, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, Τεύχος 39 (4), 2004.
Mudde Cas- Kaltwasser Cristóbal Rovira, Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat Or Corrective for Democracy?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012.
Office of the Election Commission of Thailand, www.ect.go.th, retrieved: 10/06/15.*
Taggart Paul, Populism, Open University Press, Philadelphia, 2000.
“Thaksin’s speech”, 03/03/2006, speech before the 2006 elections at Sanamluang, Bangkok, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fw6MUKgKMY, retrieved: 10/06/15.*
“Thaksin’s interview”, 10/03/2006, interview before the 2006 elections in the television program: Tung Look Tung Khon, Bangkok, Thailand, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aUIWIuvAnw, retrieved: 10/06/15.*
“Thaksin’s speech”, 26/03/2006, speech before the 2006 elections at Wongwianyai, Bangkok, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zpT2szZN2Oc, retrieved: 10/06/15.*
*Sources in Greek and Thai are included with a translated title and marked with an asterisk.
Margaret Canovan, “Trust the people! Populism and the Two faces of Democracy”, Political Studies, 47 (1), 1999, pp. 2-16 and Ernesto Laclau, “Four answers for populism: An Interview with Ernesto Laclau”, Science and Society, Volume 12, 2004, pp. 213-218.*
 Margaret Canovan, ibid, p. 3.
 Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, Τεύχος 39 (4), 2004, p. 543.
 Paul Taggart, Populism, Open University Press, Philadelphia, 2000, p. 5.
 Cas Mudde- Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat Or Corrective for Democracy?, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, p. 22.
 Andrew MacGregor Marshall, A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, Zed Books Ltd, London, 2014, p. 1.
 Prajak Kongkirati, “The Rise and Fall of Electoral Violence in Thailand: Changing Rules, Structures and Power Landscapes: 1997–2011”, Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, Volume 36, Number 3, December 2014.
 The Privy Council is a body of appointed advisors to the Monarch of Thailand. It should be composed of no more than eighteen members.
 “Thaksin’s interview”, 10/03/2006, interview before the 2006 elections in the television program: Tung Look Tung Khon, Bangkok, Thailand, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aUIWIuvAnw, retrieved: 10/06/15.*
 People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
 Chris Baker- Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 262-270.
 Ibid, pp. 262-270.
 Dissolution of TRT party.
 Ibid, p. 273.