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Thailand: Contestation over elections, sovereignty and representation

Hewison, K. (2015) Thailand: Contestation over elections, sovereignty and representation. Representation, 51 (1). pp. 51-62.

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Thailand's politics in the early twenty-first century has seen considerable contestation. Underlying the street protests, military interventions and considerable bloodshed has been a struggle over the nature of electoral politics, popular sovereignty and representation. The military and monarchy have maintained a royalist alliance that opposes elections, popular sovereignty and civilian politicians, proposing Thai-style democracy as an alternative. Those who promote elections and popular sovereignty argue that these are a basis for democratisation.

On 22 May 2014, Thailand's military staged yet another coup, unseating the government elected in 2011, led by Yingluck Shinawatra. By most calculations, this was Thailand's 12th successful coup. The 11th putsch in September 2006 ousted Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra.

In considering these two most recent military interventions, it is striking that both were associated with a decade of large and sometimes aggressive street protests. As will be shown in this paper, at the core of these demonstrations has been competing ideas about democracy, elections and representation. Involving a range of actors, the most significant of the street protests have been, on the one hand, associated with the red-shirted supporters of Thaksin and, on the other hand, by their opponents, known as yellow shirts and more broadly identified—and self-identified—as royalists. Both groups have mobilised large numbers of supporters.

If the leaders of Thailand's competing political groups had ever thought to peruse the pages of this journal, they would have found much that resonated with their struggles and debates of the past decade. Indeed, the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) might have been claimed as something of a model by Thailand's most recent protesters, the ‘People's Committee for Absolute Democracy with the King as Head of State’ (PCAD). The PCAD argued that what they wanted was thorough-going political reform, and so its leaders might have agreed with the ERS view that ‘the present electoral system has little to recommend it … ’. PCAD activists rejected Thailand's electoral system and opposed voting because these were considered obstacles for political reform. They would have noticed resonance with their own rhetoric when the ERS pointed to injustices associated with electoral minorities, and the PCAD would have been heartened to read that the British electoral system was sometimes described as ‘undemocratic’, a term the PCAD regularly used in criticising Yingluck's government (Electoral Reform Society 1970: 1). They would also have noticed that at times the ERS questioned electoral mandates, for the PCAD consistently rejected the substantial election victory voters delivered for Yingluck in 2011 (Electoral Reform Society 1971: 3).

At the same time, Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party government and its supporters in the ‘United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship’ (UDD) would certainly have agreed with a 1970 ERS article that lamented the ‘tendency to substitute various forms of demonstration for the ballot box … ’ (Electoral Reform Society 1970: 1). They would have recognised the sentiment expressed in the article, ‘Let the voters arbitrate’, by the ERS's ‘EL’ (1975: 37); after all, as the PCAD rallied to bring down the Yingluck government and prevented an election, her supporters repeatedly demanded that their votes and their right to vote be respected.

In other words, even if the methods and outcomes may be quite different from those seen in Britain of the 1970s, the contested claims about the nature of electoral politics and about appropriate forms of representation are familiar in early twenty-first-century Thailand. In this paper, the history and development of these competing claims will be examined. This historical contextualisation of Thailand's debates over representation is critical in understanding the nature of the past decade of intense political conflict, from 2005 to 2014.

This recent period has seen seven prime ministers and was punctuated by two military coups. It is a conflict that has been destructive and divisive and has thrown competing claims about political representation into stark relief. In established democracies, the nature of this representation is sometimes contested but it seldom threatens a political regime. In Thailand, contestation over representation has led to violence, military intervention and deep political division. These struggles over representation have been about the very nature of the political order in Thailand.

Publication Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Management and Governance
Publisher: Taylor and Francis
Copyright: 2015 McDougall Trust, London
Notes: Published online: 23 February 2015
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