November 28, 2008

The politics of coups in Thailand 2008

Comment on the crisis in Thailand

"Consequently, we also need to disaggregate Thaksin's pro-poor policies and realise that the brilliance of his strategy was to appeal to middle layers of farmers - what once might have been called the petty bourgeoisie. Such class elements are open to various political projects, and Thaksin won them to his."

Who knows how the military will settle, and on what side (?), after the seizure of Bangkok's international airport by the People's Alliance for Democracy on 25 November. This latest militant attack on the government by PAD is a consequence both of its own desire to bring the crisis to a climax (having failed to do so previously) and to halt constitutional amendments that would turn the political clock to the pre-coup period.

PAD ideologues continue to fashion a hybrid civic, liberal-conservative, royalist and corporatist rhetoric to justify its claims and actions. Its essential argument being that in the face of an illegitimate government, civil disobedience is a right and a duty. Yet, as was manifestly clear from Sondhi's speeches in June 2008 and the espousal of "new politics", sections of the PAD leadership effectively wish to replace the imperfect but majoritarian electoral democracy currently in place with one that returns Thailand to the "semi-democracy" of the 1980s, although one reconfigured as more virtuous and wise. This is the only solution some elitist liberals and conservatives can envisage in the face of the electoral strength of the pro-Thaksin forces. The willingness of those forces to develop Thailand in a manner that departs from the liberal-conservative compromise that characterised the 1990s is an added incentive to turn back the clock.

As flagged previously, a Bonapartist solution to the prolonged crisis is not out of the question. Such a solution would deal a death blow to both currents in the drama now playing itself on the streets of Bangkok, and would lead to a regime hostile to the politics of both camps.

Speculation on which side the military will fall is just that, and perhaps if a coup occurs in the next few hours or days it will be one of those rare events when the military turns on itself.

Below is an extract on coup-regimes in Thailand from a paper to be published next year. The paper examines the origins of the current crisis by looking at competition between regime framers (liberal, statist and plutocratic). It argues that the current conflict is not simply a consequence of succession politics or intra-elite conflict over capture of state power, but is fundamentally about competition over regime form. Why liberals and statists in Thailand have pacted against Thaksin and his political populism requires explanation beyond the popular idea that the conservative and liberal elite were so against the pro-poor policies of the Thaksin regime that they overthrew it. The politics of the 2006 coup, and subsequently, reflect fundamentally a conflict over regime form rather than differing orientations to the "poor". It is arguable that the forces antagonistic to Thaksin can accommodate the "pro-poor" policies of Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai party, evidenced by the Democrat Party's outdoing of TRT's policies in the 2005 election.

In place of the idea that this is a conflict between poor and rich, city and province, consider that the Thaksin regime progressively threatened an elite settlement between liberals and conservatives (in form since the 1980s) that envisaged a generational programme of regime change in a liberal political direction; a settlement that protected both the military and the palace. Class and geographical politics were certainly part of the equation in the 2006 conflict that led to the coup, but it is the subsequent conflict that has brought them to the fore.

Consequently, we also need to disaggregate Thaksin's pro-poor policies and realise that the brilliance of his strategy was to appeal to middle layers of farmers - what once might have been called the petty bourgeoisie. Such class elements are open to various political projects, and Thaksin won them to his.

The extract below attempts to explain the nature of "decisionist regimes", and suggests that the 2006-2007 decisionist regime was significantly different than previous episodes because of its implicit pacting with liberal elements.


"Liberalism, authoritarianism and the politics of decisionism in Thailand" (forthcoming) Pacific Review
Michael K. Connors

Decisionist regimes

Decisionist regimes are centred on junta control of state apparatuses, with real or nominal support from the palace. They are premised on the fact that a state of exception, one which the existing constitutional order cannot resolve, is held to exist (by them). Decisionist regimes suspend the existing order and assume effective sovereignty. In deciding that a state of exception exists a junta declare themselves, by their actions if not in name, sovereign, in accordance with Carl Schmitt’s (1988: 5) anti-liberal formula that “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”. As Heiner Bielefeldt (1998: 26) notes, “the state of exception in which the entire legal order is at stake, reveals the factual primacy of ‘rule of man’ over ‘rule of law’”. In rupturing the messy and emergent expressions of liberal or other forms of political legitimacy by a political decision that suspends existing order, a decisionist phase is the moment when all political actors can see who holds sovereign-might to regulate social order. Recurrent decisionist phases in Thai politics indicate the fragility of constitutional order and the persistence of authoritarianism in the military and palace. This is codified in Thai law and enables decrees and a constitution issued by military junta to enduring force of law. This ‘convention’ was given legal precedent in a Supreme Court ruling in 1952 that concluded that a government established by a coup d’etat may not at first be legally legitimate, until people come to accept the new government. This acceptance bestows effective legitimacy. It concluded this had occurred, and ruled the Phibun government legitimate (see Somchai 2007: 193-95). This has provided a legal basis for all subsequent coup regimes and the laws they issue.

In some senses, the regularity of decisionist interventions in Thai politics has meant that the ability to define states of exception is in part seen by the political classes as one more component of the arsenal of state power that lies above regime form. Whether welcomed or not, it forms an overarching possibility that structures political behaviour. It also explains the strategic compulsion requiring that Thaksin staff the military with loyalists. While a state of exception is far from the norm, the mobilisation by statist forces to threaten or indeed act in a decisionist manner is a long term feature of Thai politics and accounts for constant coup rumours, even during the liberal-conservative period (1988-2000). When non-negotiable statist military and palace preferences are ignored the use of a reserve veto is often the penultimate stage before the exercise of a state exception. Veto is largely exercised in unknown dealings of power brokers. Decisionist intervention may be understood as a consequence of certain political boundaries being transgressed and vetos ignored or defied. The politics of 2005-2006 witnessed an extraordinary exercise in brinkmanship, with Thaksin testing how far he could go - emboldened by popular support - in entrenching a new power balance between statists, liberals and pluto-populists. In that sense he provoked a decisionist intervention.

Decisionist phases are not particularly amenable to structural analysis, but are rather impelled by the particular mix of institutional and voluntarist elements that play themselves out at crisis moments (in some senses, these may be seen as pent up demand from structuralist pressures) when state actors utilise positions to usurp regime forms. The 1991-1992 decisionist phase that attempted to restore the liberal bureaucratic-authoritarian status quo of the 1980s, was occasioned by military and bureaucratic actors threatened by the rise of capitalist control over the state. Statist forces utilised the networks of village heads around the nation to support their re-entrenchment, gathering millions signatures in support of the pro-military 1991 constitution (Amon 1992: 82). This ended with the persistence of cross-class protests demanding an expanded democratic space and a non-political role for the military (see Hewison 1993). Blocked and defeated, the military withdrew from excessive public intervention for some years, but not until the massacre of May 1992. In this decisionist phase a military installed government passed numerous laws favouring business interest and regulation. At the head of that government was Thailand’s most renowned liberal, Anand Panyarachun, who was the main protagonist of an authoritarian legislative process for the purpose of capital interest. This liberal-statist alliance during a decisionist phase is indicative of Thai liberalism’s ability to pragmatically work with statist regime framers.

The decisionist regime of 2006-2007, the building of which re-activated the social base of statist regime framers, involved the wholesale suspension of the 1997 settlement, the imposition of martial law across the country, draconian restriction on political activity, overwhelming media control and the mobilisation of state resources for the political objectives of destroying the Thaksin regime. This objective entailed direct deployment of power by circumvention of the formal process in the representative realm. Yet, the 2006-2007 decisionist regime was in some senses liberal-regarding, reflecting elements of the social base that supported the coup.

The regime’s interim constitution of October 2006 declared a commitment to the international norms of human rights, while ensuring the process of governing and re-constitutionalisation of power was under its control. The “permanent constitution” of 2007 - put to a highly manipulated referendum and passed in August 2007 - sanctioned the reproduction of key elements of the 1997 constitution, including the liberal agenda of rights and the independent agencies of the state. In effect, notwithstanding the odious curtailing of political activity and its flagrant abuse of human rights and the international norms it pledged to uphold (Asian Human Rights Commission 2006), the regime put in a place a constitution that promised the maintenance of liberal historic gains. It did so while opportunistically re-asserting the position of the bureaucracy and military through a semi-appointed senate and by passing a new draconian Internal Security Act. It also enhanced the power of judicial oversight, at a time when that judiciary was judged to be politicised and corrupt. The regime returned the country to electoral rule in just over a year, and reluctantly accepted the December 2007 election that returned pro-Thaksin forces to power. This decisionist regime is best understood as occasioning a pragmatic understanding between erstwhile competing liberal and statist regime framers to offset Thaksin. The constitutional settlement of 2007, in the unlikely event that it survives for long, is the ground upon which new statist/liberal contests will be played out – assuming that residual elements of the electoral populist regime are dealt with. Until that time more statist-liberal alliances can be expected.