This weekend, two major emerging markets will go to the polls. Much has been written about the upcoming elections in Turkey and how the country’s charismatic leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is expected to face his most challenging electoral test yet in almost two decades. But something quite similar is also happening in Thailand, which has been described by some political scientists as an ‘unlikely [political] twin’ of Turkey. On the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass, another charismatic leader, former prime minister and billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, is hoping to return to the country amid high hopes that his electoral proxies, co-led by his daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, will pull off a landslide victory. As in Turkey, Thailand is also facing its most consequential elections yet, with major implications for its beleaguered democracy and the broader geopolitical landscape in the Indo-Pacific.
More than 50 million Thais are expected to cast the ballot to determine the fate of 500 seats in the lower house, with 80 percent reserved for constituent members and 20 percent for party members. The opposition Pheu Thai Party (PTP), which is effectively run by Thaksin via his family and allies, is expected to secure the greatest number of seats, but it is far from clear whether the resurgent party is in a position to win a majority of 310 seats in order to wrest back control of the prime ministerial office. Thaksin’s daughter, Paetongtarn Shinawatra, is the face of the opposition party and one of the top contenders to land the top post. But in Thailand, as in Turkey, elections alone, even when relatively competitive and fair, do not necessarily determine political outcomes.
Since 1932, Thailand has suffered as many as 19 coups, with the country’s praetorian-style military repeatedly thwarting popular mandates in the name of political stability and preservation of the country’s centuries-old monarchy. While Erdogan has, so far, managed to thwart coups and extra-constitutional challenges to his rule as recently as 2016, Thaksin and his family have not been as lucky or shrewd. Both the charismatic Thai leader and his sister, Yingluck, were deposed by military coups, which were backed by a coalition of Bangkok middle classes and the royalist elite, who are collectively known as “Yellow Shirts”. Thaksin’s “Red Shirt” supporters, meanwhile, are largely composed of urban poor and rural supporters from the less affluent regions of Thailand, a country where the bulk of wealth is concentrated in imperial Bangkok.
Thaksin’s impending return, coupled with a widely expected dominant performance by his proxies, has raised the specter of an ‘inevitable coup’ in the near future. Upon closer examination, however, the upcoming election is far from a settled race, since both sides of the equation are divided, opening the space for a whole range of potentially cross-cutting, ideologically-incoherent coalitions. As Thai politics expert Greg Raymond observes, “the clear distinction between the so-called ‘democratic’ and ‘authoritarian’ sides of Thai politics that was present after the 2019 election may dissolve” in this year’s elections. Nevertheless, the fundamental challenge facing Thailand in this election is this: Will the country, after a century of coups and constitutional change, manage to end the evil cycle (wongchon ubat) of electoral populism and elitist militarism? As a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and boasting the second largest economy in the region just behind Indonesia, Thailand’s politics will inevitably impact regional geopolitics, especially if a new and a more progressive government takes over in the near future.
Roots of crisis
Thailand is known for many things, including its famed tourist spots and nightlife. But what makes the country highly consequential is its dynamic economy and relatively large manufacturing base, which has earned the Southeast Asian nation the moniker of “Detroit of Asia”. Although the country has underperformed in recent years, with the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracting the final quarter of last year and full-year growth expected to be under 4 percent in 2023, Thailand’s developmental strides cannot be overstated. Between the 1960s to late-2000s, the country reduced its poverty rate from almost two-thirds of the population to under 10 percent. Although at the epicenter of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997-98, which ravaged regional economies and equity markets, Thailand boasts, according to renowned economist Ruchir Sharma, nothing less than “the world’s most resilient currency.”
At the height of the crisis, Thailand’s GDP contracted by almost 20 percent, while the Thai Baht’s value was cut in half. Despite the country’s turbulent politics, its technocratic elite have maintained a largely stable macroeconomic environment: Government fiscal deficit has averaged only 1 percent of GDP in recent memory, less than half of comparable emerging markets, while Thailand’s Central Bank has maintained a tight leash on interest rates and overall monetary policy. GDP per capita has increased from barely $3,000 to around $8,000 today, making Thailand a full-fledged upper-middle-income nation. The Thai economy, which churns out more than a million cars a year, is also dynamically open, with trade constituting up to 110 percent of the GDP, up from 80 percent in the late-1990s.
Notwithstanding the country’s dynamic economy, one man, in particular, has often taken credit for its developmental success, especially among the disenfranchised masses, while simultaneously representing corruption and cronyism for the country’s alienated middle class. To understand the roots of Thailand’s contemporary political crisis, one should first analyze the forces that catapulted Thaksin, a Sino-Thai businessman-turned-politico to the pinnacle of powers two decades earlier.
What makes Thailand extremely unique in the region is that it is, as the great political scientist Benedict Anderson explains, “the only example anywhere in Southeast Asia of an overseas Chinese becoming the local monarch.” Contemporary Thailand was built on the foundations of a kingdom founded by Taksin the Great, a Sino-Thai general, who drove out Burmese occupiers in the mid-18th century by leveraging his alliance with Chinese sailors residing in south-eastern Siam. In place of the old Thai aristocracy, concentrated in the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom, Taksin found a new nation-state altogether. After more than just a decade of reign, he was overthrown in a coup, which set in motion a pattern that will shape Thai politics for centuries to come. Taksin was replaced by a fellow Sino-Thai of Teochew descent, who founded the Chakri dynasty, the current monarchy of Thailand, which built the foundations of what would become Bangkok. Over the next two centuries, successive waves of Chinese immigrants from various ethno-linguistic backgrounds, escaping the ravages of a crumbling Qing Empire, would find refuge and thrive in Thailand.
The rise of nationalism in the mid-20th century, however, placed the Sino-Thai communities in a bind, as their loyalty came under question. A self-consciously nationalistic military-bureaucratic elite began to exert growing influence in shaping Thailand’s political system. As Anderson explains, “the army, police and intelligence services distrusted the Chinese, seeing them as potential spies or troublemakers, and they were often harassed.” The marginalization of the ethnic Chinese community gained a more vicious form at the height of the Cold War, as various Sino-Thai communities, depending on their socio-economic profile, adopted divergent stances on the Chinese Civil War, the Maoist regime in Zhongnanhai, and the broader Cold War ravaging Indo-China. As a US ally, the Thai military played a critical role in supporting Western operations against various Beijing-backed communist regimes and rebels in Southeast Asia, including the communist movement in Thailand. Nevertheless, the Thai military-bureaucratic elite, despite waves of nationalization, ultimately relied on the Chinese community, including prominent oligarchs, to continue running the commanding heights of the economy. The upshot was an uneasy compromise, whereby the ethnic Chinese Thais were largely economic elites but shut out of the upper-echelons of state institutions.
The situation, however, began to dramatically change in the twilight decade of the Cold War, as predominantly Sino-Thai businessmen began to carve out their place in the Thai electoral landscape. In the past decade, Thais of Chinese ancestry managed to occupy up to 78 percent of the seats in Thailand’s parliament, even if the Sino-Thais constitute around 15 percent of the population. The biggest beneficiary of this structural transformation was no less than Thaksin Shinawatra, who hailed from a business family based in the north, Chiang Mai. What made him particularly powerful was the fact that his capital was derived from telecommunications and broadcasting concessions, two robust sectors that propelled him to the pinnacle of power.
The 1990s were heady years for ambitious plutocrats. Thaksin’s first major stint was as foreign minister in the Chuan Leekpai administration, then came two short terms as deputy prime minister. The Asian Financial Crisis, however, proved a major opening for the budding populist, who, leveraging alleged inside information and strategic intelligence, managed to come out of the crisis much stronger than all major rivals. At the turn of the century, Thaksin was in a prime position to claim the top job himself, as he launched a full-blown populist campaign, which promised universal healthcare, public infrastructure, and agricultural subsidies to the masses while rallying other Sino-Thai oligarchs, including Dhanin Chearavanont, the Sophonpanich family, and Sondhi Limthongkun, under an umbrella coalition.
On one hand, Thaksin, a populist by instinct, (falsely) portrayed himself as a man from humble beginnings, “a rural kid, the son of a coffee shop owner, [who] helped [his] father with his orchards, newspaper delivery, and mobile cinema,” while presenting himself as an aspirational figure, whose contemporary “friends range from hired motorcycle drivers to the presidents of great countries.” As his biographers Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker explain, “Thaksin’s rise was a logical extension of Thailand’s business-dominated ‘money politics’, but also a dramatic change of scale. It brought some of the wealthiest elements of domestic capital into the seat of power. It superseded ‘money politics’ with ‘big money politics’.”
A new crisis cycle
Though astute during his rise to power, Thaksin, who was now setting his sight on challenging the monarchy, managed to alienate two major constituencies once in power. He quickly built a massive nationwide following, especially among the urban poor and rural populace, through a classic populist formula: “He promoted growth by encouraging the expansion of household debt and using quasi-fiscal financing arrangements to increase public expenditure without a short-term blow-out in public borrowing.” By the mid-2000s, Thaksin seemed invincible, with his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) absorbing three more political parties and, crucially, after a decisive election victory, thanks to a loyal populist base, he garnered a parliamentary super-majority, which gave him sufficient votes to suspend any modicum of checks and balances and, accordingly, create a new constitutional – and political – order altogether. The upshot was political hubris and complacency, with the populist-oligarch now envisioning “a quarter century in power”, which would cost Thaksin dearly.
On one hand, he failed to keep his fellow tycoons happy, as government-backed concessions disproportionately benefited him but left many rivals in the cold. Meanwhile, populist antics and brazen corruption mobilized Thailand’s relatively large middle class, largely concentrated in Bangkok, who would find a natural ally among the royalists. The middle-class dissatisfaction with Thaksin was so profound that they essentially turned into anti-democrats. As one Thai politics expert explains, “middle classes feel like they are ‘being robbed’ by corrupt politicians, who use their tax revenues to ‘buy votes’ from the ‘greedy poor. Or, in a more subtle language, the ‘uneducated rural masses are easy prey for politicians who promise them everything in an effort to get a hold of power’.” A mini-civil war was in the making.
The trigger was the controversial sale of the Shin Corporation, owned by the Thaksins, to the Singapore government’s Temasek Holdings in 2006. Popular anger was provoked by reports of regulatory exemptions undergirding the multi-billion-dollar deal, which raised serious conflict of interest concerns among the broader public and Thaksin’s critics. Former three-time premiere, and a key confidante of the then Thai monarchy, Prem Tinsulanonda, wasted no time to explore his options. Once it became clear that he had big businessmen and the middle classes on his side, a coup yet again was launched against a democratically-elected government while Thaksin was abroad. Over the next decade, the exiled oligarch would engage in multiple attempts to win back power, most dramatically through the premiership of his sister, Yingluck, who oversaw a dramatic PTP victory in the 2011 elections, which set in motion another coup (2014) and military-led regime without undermining the foundations of Thaksin’s enduring power.
Re-alignments and risks
Benedict Anderson once famously argued that contemporary Thai politics can be essentially understood as a rivalry among competing ethno-linguistic Chinese groups in the country, including the monarchy, rather than over ideology: “Don’t fool yourself that the political contest in Thailand is about democracy or anything like that. It’s about whether the Teochews [monarchy] get to keep their top position, or whether it’s the turn of the Hakkas [like Thaksin]” The latest elections, however, provide a rich array of opportunities for cross-cutting coalitions beyond ethno-linguistic faultlines.
On one hand, the pro-military establishment, which has been in power since the 2014 coup, is divided between two henchmen, namely the incumbent Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha (United Thai Nation), and his deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan (Palang Pracharath Party), two former generals running against each other. This will likely split the military-anointed senate, which is set to lose its constitutionally-mandated powers next year (May 2024).
Meanwhile, the more progressive youth-oriented Move Forward Party (MFP), built from the ashes of a breakout star (Future Forward Party) in previous elections and led by charismatic Pita Limjaroenrat, has also gained momentum in the final days of the campaign. Both MFP and UTN expect to win at least 100 seats, placing them in a strong position to become junior partners in any future coalition government. MFP seems to be open to a coalition with PTP, but it is unlikely to be amenable to any coalition with either of the two major pro-military factions. Thaksin’s PTP, meanwhile, has not ruled out forming a coalition with former general Prawi’s Palang Pracharath Party (PPP), underscoring how political calculus rather than ideology will determine the post-election horse-trading. As for General Prawit Wongsuwan, he has presented himself as a the candidate of political reconciliation in tandem with PTP.
Other potential kingmakers are Health Minister Anutin Charnvirakul (Bhumjaithai Party), who gained prominence by overseeing the COVID-19 pandemic, and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit (Democrat Party). A big concern for observers is that whoever comes on top will likely undermine the country’s hard-earned macroeconomic stability, as top contenders, especially PTP, indulge in populist promises, including a 10,000 baht cash bonus (US$300) digital wallet for all adults. There is also the prospect of widespread instability should Thaksin’s return or/and his daughter’s victory provoke a renewed push-back from the Ancien Régime or an alienated MFP and the mobilized middle-class section of Bangkok.
The geopolitical stakes
Given Thailand’s economic size and geopolitical heft as a founding member of ASEAN, a US treaty ally, and a budding commercial and defense partner of China, the upcoming elections are carefully watched around the world. As in its pragmatic-opportunist domestic politics, Thailand is expected to continue its long tradition of ‘bamboo diplomacy’, which was essential to its survival and success during the Age of Empires as well as in the post-Cold War period.  Nevertheless, a few changes are in the pipelines should the opposition, especially a PTP-MFP coalition, come into power.
The first and most consequential change will likely come in terms of Thailand’s controversial embrace of the brutal junta in Myanmar, which has been overseeing a violent purge of the more progressive-liberal elite as well as a broader civil war across the Southeast Asian nation. The outgoing military-backed regime under Prayuth is the only ASEAN founding member to have openly embraced the regime in Naypyidaw, even as the regional body has sought to gradually boycott (with heavy Malaysian and even Indonesia backing) the junta short of expelling Myanmar altogether in the past year. To the consternation of key ASEAN members, Thailand repeatedly invited the Burmese junta to attend various ASEAN-related summits in Bangkok in the past, including the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus working group on maritime security. Thailand’s special envoy for Myanmar even criticized sanctions against the brutal regime, which has placed it completely out of the working consensus among ASEAN founding members. An opposition-led government, therefore, is likely to take a more critical stance against the junta and, inter alia, be more supportive of Burmese exiles, both in Thailand and at the United Nations.
Second, a new and more progressive government could also see Thailand reasserting its historic role as a regional power and a harbinger of free trade in the region. Under Prayuth, the Southeast Asian nation was largely tethered to Chinese-led regional initiatives, especially the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), in hopes of accelerating infrastructure development and growth at home. Opposition parties, however, have promised to promote a more free-trade-driven growth, which would accelerate the country’s infrastructure modernization and booming digital economy. Thus, Thailand will likely be more open to joining in US-led initiatives such as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) and the Japan-led Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
And this brings us to the penultimate issue, namely the prospect of a more proactive hedging strategy amid intensifying Sino-American rivalry in the Indo-Pacific. An opposition-led government will like adopt a “Bamboo Diplomacy 2.0”, which seeks to hedge Thailand’s bets without being passive/submissive to either of the two superpowers. As the Harvard-educated leader of the MFP has made it clear, it is important for Thailand to be a more assertive member of the Global South because “the new world order is no world order.” Choosing sides is no option, nor is strategic passivity. Accordingly, Thailand may become more like neighboring Singapore, which has been far more vocal and proactive in mediating and shaping Sino-American rivalry. An PTP-MFP government will likely also see, at least rhetorically, greater focus on not only human rights and democracy, but also climate change and other major non-traditional security issues. In short, Thailand could once again reassume the mantle of leadership if it manages a relatively stable political transition in the upcoming elections after almost a decade of military-led rule and semi-isolation within ASEAN.
 Joe Studwell, Asian Godfathers: Money and Power in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia (Grove Press, 2008).
 Anderson, “Riddles of Yellow and Red.”
 Ibid, p. 243.
 Studwell, Asian Godfathers, p. 153.
 Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker, Thaksin, Second Edition (Silkworm Books, 2009).
 Studwell, Asian Godfathers, p. 152.
 Ibid., p. 154.
 Anderson, “Riddles of Yellow and Red.”
 See Jittipat Poonjham, “Introduction,” in A Genealogy of Bamboo Diplomacy: The Politics of Thai Détente with Russia and China, First Edition, (ANU Press, 2022): pp. 1–32, http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv28x2bcj.4.
 Chinnasathian and Lee, “Thai Election Look-Ahead.”
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