“Elections” matter for the junta and its supporters

30 06 2018

Readers will be interested in a new op-ed by Pavin Chachavalpongpun. As the article is long and also likely to be able to be read in Thailand, we just highlight a couple of points.

Drawing on an observation by Italian Communist and Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, Pavin observes that “[t]hese are the days when an old system refuses to die and a new system isn’t ready to be born.”

Reflecting on the current grim political situation, Pavin looks back to the rise of the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) some 13 years ago. He argues that the “crux” of the political problem of the time was “apprehension among the royal political network concerning the rise of Thaksin [Shinawatra], who threatened to replace the old political order with his own.”

As the Shinawatras and their parties continued to triumph in elections after the 2006 coup, Pavin observes that this “coincided with the flagging power of the Thai monarchy.”

This characterization is a little off. The monarchy’s power wasn’t flagging but was being challenged by the rise of anti-monarchy sentiment associated with a political movement. That’s why the “royal political network sought to eliminate its enemies once more in a coup.”

Whether this had much to do with “manag[ing] the royal succession” remains debatable. But it is clear that crushing anti-monarchy sentiment and agitation was critical for both the military and palace as it was red shirts who constituted the existential challenge to monarchy and military. Pavin provides a neat potted history of the construction and maintenance of the military-monarchy nexus and its struggles with the rise of electoral politics.

Today, while it may appear that “the royal political network had won this political tussle,”Pavin isn’t so sure. He links this to the new reign and potential instability, where the “prospect of Thailand being ruled by a new unpopular king was daunting. While Bhumibol was able to safeguard the political benefits of the elitist class, his son, now King Vajiralongkorn, seemed unlikely to be able to guarantee the same” for that class.

We think that explaining the long political crisis by focusing on the succession has now been shown to have been overdone. In fact, there was no succession crisis. Rather, there was a crisis that emerged from the challenge to the military-monarchy nexus that came from the grassroots. It was that crisis that in part prompted the 2014 military coup.

Pavin is right that the new political system is not yet in place. That is why the junta wants 20-year “plans” and to control the election after putting new political rules in place. If the current junta succeeds and puts Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha in place following the election heading a coalition of unimportant military boot-licking pseudo-parties, then it will have given birth to the “new” system.

All the stuff about the “new monarch is lacking in moral authority” and so on is quickly being replaced by a “new” conservative royalism that is backward looking, nationalist and military sponsored, not unlike the monarchism invented under Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat.

Pavin concludes by asking”: “So, where does Thailand go from here? Will the upcoming elections mean anything for the country?” Remarkably, he can only say: “Elections, if they are to happen, may not deliver a genuine democratic regime.”

May not? Seriously, this is a desperate grasping at straws. They not only cannot deliver a “genuine democratic regime” but are meant to deliver – and designed to deliver – military political dominance for years to come save the prospect of “political violence” that Pavin briefly considers.

Finally, Pavin returns to “palace politics” which he says is “complicated and unpredictable.” It has always been so because the palace remains the most opaque and secretive of institutions. Pavin is certainly right to observe: “Since the Thai monarchy cannot be separated from politics, developments within the walls of the palace matter greatly to Thais.” That is probably how the junta and palace prefers it. The alternative of the people mattering has been pretty much erased by the junta’s selective and targeted political repression.


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