Institutional Incentives and Informal Local Political Groups (Phuak) in Thailand: Comments on Allen Hicken and Paul Chambers

By Nelson, Michael H. | Journal of East Asian Studies, January-April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Institutional Incentives and Informal Local Political Groups (Phuak) in Thailand: Comments on Allen Hicken and Paul Chambers


Nelson, Michael H., Journal of East Asian Studies


Post-1997 Thai politics have been shaped by the effects of two momentous events that occurred almost at the same time: the introduction of far-reaching structural changes by the 1997 constitution, and the appearance of a singularly overbearing and centralizing political leader--Thaksin Shinawatra. To political analysts, this situation has provided uniquely rich opportunities to observe over a number of years whether constitutional engineering had the envisaged effect of restricting the politicians' "undesirable" actions, and whether the intended institutional change was realized. However, the coincidence of constitutional change and the occurrence of Thaksin has also made it necessary to distinguish the effects of structural changes from the effects of the new form of political leadership.

One of the main issues during the political reform process was the desire to make Thailand's governmental system more stable and efficient. A core intention thus was to increase the leadership capability of the prime minister by making his decisions sufficiently independent from his own political party, his coalition partners, and the House of Representatives. This view was expressed in the final report and recommendations of the Democracy Development Committee in April 1995, and it was mirrored by a statement in the "Basic Framework for Drafting the People's Constitution," distributed countrywide for public hearings by the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) in March 1997. (1) This document in particular said that although the prime minister had the legal powers, "he cannot show his leadership in governing the country" because he was under the control of his own party and his coalition partners. (2)

Given this approach, one would assume that Thaksin might have fulfilled the dreams of many who were involved in the political reform and constitution drafting processes. Indeed, important reform advocates initially perceived him in this light. In March 2002, Prawase Wasi, chairperson of the Democracy Development Committee, praised him for having strong leadership potential, albeit with concerns about his attempts to muzzle the mass media. Four years on, however, many of Thaksin's erstwhile admirers, including Prawase, had moved to the camp of his fervent enemies.

Many mainstream academic accounts center on the person of Thaksin. (3) He has been unrivaled in Thailand in his sheer political energy, determination, vision, professionalism, ruthlessness, and network-building capacity, not to mention the incredible financial resources at his personal disposal. Following his success at building the telecommunication company Shin Corp, Thaksin went on to create a juggernaut political party that, based on overwhelming voter support brought about by "populist policies," formed the first single-party government in Thai political history. Until the protests that started in September 2005, he seemed set easily to dominate Thai politics for many years to come, subjugating the constitutional order to his personal need for the centralization of power, if not for more sinister purposes.

As a result, important political actors as well as the dominant public discourse had attributed all problems solely to Thaksin's actions, and thus they saw only one single solution: his removal--from the position of prime minister, from politics, from the country. Most observers probably agreed with the statement of Abhisit Vejjajiva, the chairperson of the Democrat Party, that Thaksin Shinawatra had outgrown Thailand's political and constitutional system. The coup d'etat of September 19, 2006, has, at least temporarily, removed Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai Party, and thus relieved the pressure they had put on the political order. A new round of constitutional reform will aim at blocking people such as Thaksin from gaining power or preventing them from using it inappropriately. However, the present discourses on the "morality" of political leaders and popular democratization indicate the understanding that legal provisions will always be insufficient in completely excluding opportunist and authoritarian political inclinations.

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