Evolving toward What? Parties, Factions, and Coalition Behavior in Thailand Today

By Chambers, Paul | Journal of East Asian Studies, September-December 2005 | Go to article overview

Evolving toward What? Parties, Factions, and Coalition Behavior in Thailand Today


Chambers, Paul, Journal of East Asian Studies


How important have Thai parties and intraparty factions been in Thailand's fast-evolving democracy? What role do they play today, especially since the enactment of the latest constitution? What has accounted for the fragmentation in Thailand's party systems and coalitions? How did Thai democracy allow for the rise to power of Thaksin Shinawatra? This article analyzes these questions, presents a theory of Thai coalition behavior, and offers some predictions for Thailand's democratic future.

KEYWORDS: cabinet, coalition, democracy, faction, fragmentation, party, political, system, Thailand, Thaksin

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In theory, political parties have played essential roles in democratic regimes--aggregating interests, mobilizing social support, and giving popular legitimacy to ruling elites. Standing at the nexus between constituents and policymakers, they have been indispensable democratic institutions. Yet the effectiveness of parties in evolving democracies has often been quite dubious. Thai democracy has been a case in point. How did the burgeoning Thai democracy and evolving political party system allow for the advent of Thaksin? Moreover, given that Thailand's sixth general election in thirteen years was held only recently (February 2005), it is pertinent to ask what role party and intraparty structures have played under the country's fledgling democratic regime. In this article, using Riker's Size Principle, I argue that institutional constraints (or lack thereof) and intraparty turmoil have contributed to the fragmentation of Thailand's political party system. Further, using Tsebelis's notion of nested games, I develop a three-level bargaining framework to understand certain features of coalition behavior, including how parties and factions have contributed to the fragmentation of coalitions. This framework is applied to three Thai governments. Finally, I show how institutional changes have been essential in diminishing both factionalism and party fragmentation--though Thailand's 1997 constitutional reforms may have inadvertently hindered Thai democracy itself.

The enactment of a strengthened constitution and the 2001 election of a billionaire (Thaksin Shinawatra) have been significant events in Thailand's democratic evolution. The multiple political parties and factions once able to humble prime ministers and their governments have failed to obstruct Thaksin's quest to monopolize power. Never before has a democratically elected Thai politician achieved such a measure of control. At one level, the prime minister (PM) owes his continued hold on power to his highly centralized Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party, the domination of TRT factions, and the lack of any relevant opposition party. Yet the underlying reasons for this control have been an unprecedented state of affairs: significant constitutional changes and generous investment of financial resources by a politically savvy billionaire PM.

The February 2005 election reaffirmed Thaksin's overwhelming hold on power. With an individual so firmly entrenched in the office of prime minister, it is fitting to analyze how he got there in the first place. Several factors contributed to Thaksin's 2001 electoral landslide and first single-party parliamentary majority, including (1) a preelection willingness to spend lavish sums of money to both market his Thai Rak Thai Party and buy up members of parliament (MPs), footloose factions, and vote canvassers; (2) a new electoral system of single-member districts favoring parties with more cash; (3) the rival Democrat Party's PM Chuan Leekpai's perceived inability to stand up to foreign interests or cope with the 1997 Asian financial crisis; (4) Thaksin's use of nationalist rhetoric and promises to implement populist projects; (5) the popular view that Thaksin (once seen as only self-interested) would nevertheless, as a self-made billionaire strongman, successfully rescue Thailand from the economic abyss. …

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