by Michael H. Nelson*
With the 'revolution' in 1932, the political system of Thailand (until 1939 and between 1946-49: Siam) was switched from an absolute monarchy to a 'democracy with the King as Head of State'. Since then there have been 17 military coups (most of them successful), 21 parliamentary elections, 23 Prime Ministers (PM) presiding over 54 cabinets and 16 Constitutions. It is hoped that the large number of new structures introduced by the People's Constitution of 1997 will lead to more political stability and accountability, and will help reduce bureaucratic and political corruption and vote-buying in elections.
Thailand has never been a colony. The most important turning point in its political history was the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, in 1932. It was achieved by a small group of commoners with positions in the civil service and in the military. In the official discourse of the state, this event is regarded as the introduction of democracy in Thailand. However, the population at large played hardly any role in the coup and in the processes that followed. Rather, the ensuing period was marked by a perennial power-struggle among civilian, military, and partly royalist factions, press censorship and the prohibition of forming political parties.
In 1938, Phibul Songkhram assumed the offices of Commander-in-Chief and PM and established a nationalistic military dictatorship. In 1944 he was forced to resign because of his alliance with the Japanese, whose troops had entered Thailand. In the following four years Thailand was governed by five different PMs who presided over ten cabinets. In