The May 2014 coup d’etat in Thailand was the culmination of nearly a year of continued political crises, marked by large-scale street protests and violence. It was the final act of a decade-long political between the Democratic Party and the various incarnations of Thai telecom tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra’s political apparatus, including the Thai Rak Thai party (TRT) and its predecessors, the People’s Power Party (PPP), and the Pheu Thai Party (PTP).
Thailand’s 2001 elections ushered in Shinawatra’s TRT in a landslide victory based on rural support for his populist policies, known as “Thaksinomics”. The party further cemented its majority in the 2005 elections, 374 of the 500 seats in the lower parliament. These successive victories illustrate a growing political rift in Thailand—the socioeconomic and political divide between the traditionally less-affluent, but more populous, north and northeastern provinces and the southern provinces that are home to the Bangkok elite. The TRT has tapped into rural frustration with policies, like universal health care and debt relief for farmers, many of whom have struggled since the Asian financial crisis in 1997.
The main opposition to Thaksin has been the Democratic Party, Thailand’s oldest political party. The Democratic Party has leveled accusations that Thaksin used his influence to benefit his business interests—and harm his competitors—painting Thaksin as corrupt and prone to abusing his power. After months of nationwide protests by the Democratic Party and their affiliates, Thaksin was ultimately brought down, not by his political rivals or by corruption charges from the judiciary, but by the Royal Thai military which launched a while Thaksin delivered a speech to the UN in New York City. The Constitutional Court, Thailand’s highest court, unanimously voted to ban the Thai Rak Thai party, affirming the military’s rule.
Despite his self-imposed exile in Dubai, Thaksin has remained a political force and has retained popular legitimacy with the election of the Thaksin-proxy party, the PPP in 2007—which the Constitutional Court also in 2008—and his sister’s election as leader of the PTP in 2011.
The People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD)—widely known as the Yellow Shirts—are a coalition of the Democratic Party that includes urban upper and middle-class Thais, particularly from Bangkok, and Thai socialites. The movement also enjoys the support of elements of the Thai military, judiciary, monarchy, and others in the conservative political establishment. The PAD and their allies have not taken well to the realization that they are outnumbered by the rural masses, who have remained loyal to Thaksin. Instead of adapting to these new demographic and political realities, now that the north and northeastern provinces have found their political voice, the Party has instead turned to subverting democracy.
The PAD has demanded that the current system of elections and representative democracy be replaced with a vaguely defined “People’s Council” that would appoint most members of parliament. Sondhi Limthongkul, a leader in the PAD, did not mince words: “Representative democracy is not suitable for Thailand.”
Thailand now finds itself at a crossroads. General Prayut Chan-o-chan and his military junta have ruled since they ousted Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s sister, two years ago. They now face a stark choice. They can implement yet another constitution that suppresses democracy, does little to stabilize Thai politics in the long term, and all but ensures another coup a few years down the road. Alternatively, the general can realize that the ferocious cycle of continual coups, and averaging a different constitution every four years, has done nothing but reduce tourism by 17%, driving away vital tourist dollars, hampered GDP growth to just 3%—among the lowest in developing Asian countries—and further undermined the government’s legitimacy, both internally and in the international community. As its neighbor to the west, Myanmar, shakes off military rule and takes large strides towards democracy, Thailand risks slipping backwards.