May 16, 2008

Competing Regime Framers

The following extracted conclusion is from my paper:

"State ambivalence, decisionism and competing regime framers", paper presented to
workshop on ‘Contemporary Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia’, City University, Hong
Kong, May 9-10, 2008.

Conclusion The authoritarian paradox in Thailand.

Why is it that, in combination and contest, the liberal and democratic (electoral) positive aspects of Thailand’s history come to be expressed by authoritarian modes of power?

Thailand has a rich liberal and democratic heritage, the deepening discourses of these currents in the last generation represents a societal gain occasioned by mass struggle and incremental emergence by liberal regime framers. While the democratic forces of popular society have often been willing to ally with liberal elites to extend the political space upon which they can work on distributional and identity issues, elite liberal forces have not sanctioned an expansion of democratic space into substantive economic questions –viewing civil society as a place of tempered civic virtue and a place of social learning and political socialisation.

In the 2000s, the historical failure of Thai liberalism to deal with fundamental class grievances was grasped as an opportunity by an instrumental populist who sought to mobilise electoral weight to break through the liberal-bureaucratic compact and shift the terms of Thailand’s political economy. His populism dramatised by the “three narratives” of giving, being of the people and acting on their will )Pasuk and Baker, 2008), was made concrete by extraordinary measures to address grievances geared not simply at redistribution and alleviation but at a reconfiguration of power in Thailand. Thaksin’s wielding of the democratic gains of Thai politics, his willingness to enter the competitive fray, led to the disarticulation of an already precariously balanced liberalism and democracy (electoralism). That move laid open the possibility of the potential emergence of an electoral authoritarian regime that might permanently quash the politically liberal current, pushing such currents back into the “soft-authoritarian” arms of the noble state.

The clash of these modes of power laid the basis for the current authoritarian paradox in Thailand. In the battle between modes of order, each force competed with the other and attempted to restrain the other, ultimately resorting to authoritarian methods. Each force has failed to become institutionalised, leaving strategic elites to play games of absolute advantage, further enforcing the authoritarian impulse. Each force necessarily articulates to existing state institutions or supportive elements therein, whose substance is neither liberal nor democratic. The two positives – in a tortured historical process - have produced a negative – a decisionist authoritarianism of state and liberal regime framers.