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Is Thailand’s Political Turmoil a Sign of Positive Societal Transformation?

July 13, 2011

Thailand’s political landscape throughout much of the 20th century was populated by numerous regional or personality-based parties, and characterized by weak coalition governments. Alliances and coalitions were made and broken easily, as parties sought the best deal for their constituents and members. In contrast, the 21st century has been characterized by what seems to be an increasingly polarized electorate, and the rapid emergence of a de facto two-party system.

Thai voter holds up Yingluck Shinawatra campaign poster

Supporters of Pheu Thai Party leader Yingluck Shinawatra. Photo by Chandler Vandergrift.

Over the last decade, the potential influence of smaller regional parties has declined, while the total percentage of seats won by the two biggest parties has steadily increased, as the chart below illustrates.

Thailand has a 500-seat legislature and a mixed electoral system, with typically 400 seats elected from geographical constituencies, and 100 elected through proportional representation from party lists. In the 2011 election, there were 375 constituency seats and 125 seats allocated from party lists. The two largest parties for each of the four elections since 2001 were the Democrat Party and Thai Rak Thai (2001, 2005), or its successors the People Power Party (2007) and Pheu Thai (2011). The blue line represents the percentage of seats won by these two parties through the party list vote, and the red line the percentage of constituency seats won.

Several influences may have contributed to this trend. In political theory, Duverger’s Law suggests that majoritarian election systems in general contribute to the emergence of two-party systems, and since Thailand’s mixed system is predominantly majoritarian, this may have been a contributing factor, but perhaps not the most significant. Based on survey research conducted by The Asia Foundation in 2009 and 2010, we found that much of this trend can be attributed to an evolving political conscientiousness in the Thai electorate, and indicates a society in transition from a traditional patron/client or feudal political understanding to a more modern and ideological political consciousness.

In the traditional system, voters’ ties to political leaders were personal and characterized by the patron/client compact. Small parties centered on local notables were the norm – representing the traditional feudal elite, and voters dutifully followed their patrons as they changed parties and coalitions. But around the turn of the century this compact began to break down. First, Thaksin Shinawatra realized he could bypass the traditional feudal hierarchy and use mass media to appeal directly to the people, and offer them a better deal than they could get from their local patron. In effect, Thaksin became a sort of super patron, and in some sense mimicking or usurping the role played by the monarchy in the feudal system.

Although Thaksin’s populism sparked the transition, it was the opposition to Thaksin that has contributed most to the development of the two-party system. The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) was an umbrella group for opponents of Thaksin from any party, and over time, this group developed a coherent and unifying ideology centered on support for the monarchy, clean government (counter-corruption), and support for participatory rather than electoral democracy. This became the very successful “Yellow Movement.” In response to this success, Thaksin’s supporters set up the “Red Movement,” which over time developed its own ideology centered on opposition to double standards and support for popular or electoral democracy.

These two ideological movements have dominated political discourse in the last five years, and as the Thai political landscape has colorized, increasing numbers of voters have switched their primary political allegiance from a local patron to an ideology. This has forced the main parties, both of which were primarily traditional patronage machines, to adopt an ideology and become more modern, ideology-based parties. Smaller regional and patron-based parties have fewer and fewer adherents as voters increasingly choose a national party representing their ideological position.

Although the last decade has been fraught with political turmoil, the turmoil itself is a symptom of a broader societal transformation that has positive implications for the future of Thailand. The evolution of a feudal or patron/client society into an ideology-based society is a transition that has occurred in every patronage-based politics into an established democracy. The fact that this transition was driven from the grassroots up, from the movements to the parties, is an indication of the emerging political consciousness and maturation of the Thai people.

Tim Meisburger is a Democracy Fellow at USAID on sabbatical leave from The Asia Foundation, where he is director for Elections and Political Processes. He can be reached at tmeisburger@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation or USAID.

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