Thitinan had an article entitled “The two faces of Thai authoritarianism” for East Asia Forum (originally published on September 10). Key excerpts:
Thai politics has completed a dramatic turn from electoral authoritarianism under deposed premier Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001–2006 to a virtual military government under General Prayuth Chan-ocha. These two sides of the authoritarian coin, electoral and military, represent Thailand’s painful learning curve. The most daunting challenge for the country is not to choose one or the other but to create a hybrid that combines electoral sources of legitimacy for democratic rule and some measure of moral authority and integrity often lacked by elected officials.
Now the pendulum has swung to the other, authoritarian end. General Prayuth now heads a regime with no democratic pretences, ruling with absolute power. His is a military government both on paper and in practice. The tone of the 22 May coup clearly signalled that the military would dominate politics, epitomised by the general himself becoming prime minister.
Prayuth’s allies under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) have now taken key portfolios relating to the Thai economy and society, foreign affairs and internal security. The structure of power under the NCPO is clear.
Two months after seizing power, the NCPO rolled out an interim constitution and appointed a National Legislative Assembly (NLA). Today the NLA is filled not with business cronies and spouses of politicians but with military classmates and siblings, who in turn chose Prayuth as prime minister. The caretaker prime minister then selected his cabinet, more than one third of which is military. The National Reform Council (NRC) will soon be formed, leading to a constitution-drafting committee, which will be nominated by the NRC, NLA, cabinet and NCPO.
Like a politburo, the NCPO is thus the nexus of this interim governing structure, comprising the NLA, cabinet, and NRC. This monopoly of power is reminiscent of the Thaksin juggernaut a decade ago. It was a parliamentary dictatorship then as it is now. But the fundamental difference is that the current authoritarian period completely bypassed the electorate.
Prayuth enjoys the same immense personal popularity as Thaksin did. His no-nonsense state of the nation speeches have been to the point and delivered in appealing tones. The NCPO’s anti-corruption campaign is popular and would certainly score more points if it dared to aim at higher-up corruption schemes and concessions, not just low-hanging fruits like extortion rackets that run motorcycle taxis and the state lottery.
Prayuth and the NCPO also benefit from the fact that public expectations started from a low base. After six months of anti-government street protests and policy paralysis, the coup was a relief. Everyone had to make do with the coup because there was no initial alternative in the face of continuing martial law. But reality will start to bite as the military-dominated government starts its day-to-day work. The next 14 months of the NCPO’s timetable to return to democratic rule may be long and hard.
The military-backed government faces a tall order dealing with the grievances and expectations of a neglected electorate. Those who spoke out against the political monster that the Thaksin regime eventually became must now be wary of the potential for the military-backed government setting on a similar path. Unaccountable power with absolute authority and direct rule is inadvisable in Thailand. Past experiences in the 1960s, early 1970s and 1991–1992 have shown that such governments eventually end in tears.
BP: Have been meaning to write an overall assessment on the junta after 4 months of the coup and this is a good a time as any. It is also likely to be a while before BP has an opportunity to review this assessment.
1. Now, BP is skeptical of how accurate opinion polls can be when martial law is in place, criticism of the junta is banned and thus media commentary on what is happening is restricted, and those who criticize the junta face the risk of being summoned (although this risk is lessening gradually since the NLA voted in Prayuth as PM and so we are seeing more criticism on a a weekly basis although it is often indirect criticism) with one pollster even admitting that many people refuse to be interviewed. This is is leading to skewed results (See Saksith’s excellent post for more details; post raises other problems with recent opinion polls).
2. Having said that, BP does view that Prayuth – that is Prayuth personally and not the junta has a whole so the success of the coup will largely be dependent on the popularity of Prayuth – enjoyed a reasonable level of popularity in the immediate aftermath of the coup. The exact level of popularity is hard to assess because of the problems with opinion polls, as outlined in 1, but in the first few months after the coup, BP would have put the level of satisfaction at over 50%. Initial high satisfaction numbers is not unusual for new leaders in Thailand, but BP views that Prayuth would have had been more popular than Surayud after the same period of time of being PM so you can say that Prayuth overachieved against expectations. His early popularity has meant plans to mobilize protests against Prayuth have been delayed. BP doesn’t doubt that at some point protests will be organized and they are waiting for the (inevitable) decline in popularity before mobilizing.
3. However, BP views that Prayuth’s popularity is quite different to say Yingluck’s initial popularity. Yingluck provided enthusiasm and energised Puea Thai for the July 2011 election. Prayuth was not popular before the coup and, for now, it is more acquiescence than a strong connection because those who supported him didn’t vote for him (BP is fairly sure that have a read a paper about this from the US explaining that voters who voted for a candidate showed reluctance or at least a high threshold for changing their mind against the candidate, but just can’t find it now). Prayuth’s connection with the people could change over time, but the point that BP is making is that Prayuth’s popularity is less rooted in a strong connection so it is more prone to drop (or increase).
A key factor behind the satisfaction for Prayuth is, as Thitinan outlines, the low base of expectations. Naturally, many in the anti-Thaksin camp were just happy that a pro-Thaksin government had been removed so many will support Prayuth, but even for those who were not clearly in the anti-Thaksin camp they would have been satisfied with Prayuth at the beginning. There was a sense of relief after months of uncertainty, problems of implementing policy, and just paralysis of the government. This does not mean people endorsed the coup, but once it had happened and there was no going back, they accepted it as many were just happy that some level of order had been restored.* Particularly, at the beginning, when Prayuth came into power he was “getting things done” in going after various mafia-related activities. Yes, Thitinan is correct that Prayuth went after the low-hanging fruit so one hand you could so not much credit should go to Prayuth (although this raises the question if it was so low-hanging why the Yingluck government did not better try to address these issues when they were in government…).
(Where BP would disagree with Thitinan is that despite lots of front page articles talking about reform of the state lottery, there is no evidence that all this talk and initial coverage has resulted in any changes – see here and here for stories which indicate that little has changed for the state lottery – although given the self-censorship employed by the media the junta’s failures are given much less prominence than the junta’s initial talk of what they say they will do. Nevertheless, this cannot be hidden as many people buy lottery tickets or know people who do although it will take longer for many to realize about the failures until they experience it first-hand or they know someone who has).
One problem for the junta now is that by its very nature the low-hanging fruit is the easiest to go after. Now, the junta is having to move further up the tree and this is not as easy. It is then you start to run into problems. This is where we are at now. While the junta helped themselves to the low-hanging fruit and this brought them some initial goodwill, it will be much harder from now on.
4. Another point where BP takes issue with Thitinan is in regards to Prayuth’s direct speaking style. Yes, people like to hear leaders talking about the issues, but it feels like Prayuth views he has to have an opinion on all issues. He talks about everything, but often he just shoots from the hip with little thinking about what he is saying. His jokes about rubber farmers and bikinis in the aftermath of the 2 dead British tourists are examples of this. In some ways, he is a bit like former PM Samak in frequently complaining about this and that. It is as if he doesn’t have a filter. You either like his style or you don’t, but one big difference is that Prayuth is everywhere and you can’t avoid him – the advantage of the coup is that the TV media are forced to cover what you say, but the disadvantage is that you disrupt TV programs regularly as people are forced to listen to you in prime-time (the latter is becoming less, but when you wanted to hear Samak talk uninterrupted, you had to tune into his morning TV show). For those who like Prayuth’s style, the more they see him, the more they will like him and this will Prayuth in developing a connection with these people. For those who don’t like Prayuth or don’t like his style of speaking, the more he talks, the greater the dislike will grow.
*Makes you wonder if this was plan all along as the backers of the PDRC protests and baked Prayuth in staging the coup.