May 1, 2010

Liberalism, Authoritarianism and the Politics of Decisionism in Thailand

Connors, Michael K. 'Liberalism, authoritarianism and the politics of decisionism in Thailand', The Pacific Review, 22:3, 355 - 373

The 2006 coup d'tat against the Thaksin regime highlights the ongoing failure to embed a legitimate pattern of decision-making, enforcement and sovereignty at the national level in Thailand. It also signals that the gains of Thai liberalism and democracy since the 1980s were based on a volatile 'democratic transition' that entailed a liberal and security settlement which entrenched the monarchy at the centre of a national power bloc (Connors 2007: 128). The rise of pluto-populism (Baker 2005) under Thaksin in the early 2000s put pressure on that settlement and the social and vested interests it served, leading to a tacit alliance between liberal and statist elements to overcome the threat posed by the Thaksin regime. The coup has led to a resurgence of authoritarian politics in Thailand, but these politics are characterised by a great deal of continuity. Notwithstanding the appearance of liberalisation and democratisation in recent years, the authoritarian exercise of power - power which is unaccountable to democratic institutions and processes of law - has been an abiding feature of different regime forms. The fundamental argument is that the contemporary Thai state exists in a state of ambivalence, its institutions subject to liberal and authoritarian currents and purposes. This entails moving beyond a conventional analysis of democratisation and its treasure hunt for the democratic actor, and requires a multilayered periodisation of regime forms decoupled from the teleology implicit in 'democratic transitology'. The argument is advanced in four stages.

Firstly, a broad understanding of authoritarianism is advanced which focuses on the exercise of power, rather than formal regime form. One consequence of this argument is that electoral democratic regimes arguably facilitate the exercise of authoritarian power, as do liberal regimes. Conversely, formally authoritarian regimes can have liberal intentions. Making this argument requires a critical understanding of liberalism that goes beyond its conflation with democracy, and which recognises liberalism's agnostic if not antagonistic relationship to majoritarianism. The democratic struggle in Thailand largely has been waged by non-state and non-regime actors who have fought against liberal and illiberal elites to advance substantive political and economic equality. At times a protean force, the democratic mass rose to break statist or liberal centres, or to temper anti-democratic agendas. Bracketing that democratic struggle, secondly this paper examines elite competition over regime form. Thirdly, the paper attempts to characterise four different regime forms that have emerged since the late 1970s, each possessing a different mix of liberalism and authoritarianism. Finally, the paper offers a reflection on current politics, arguing that Carl Schmitt's concept of decisionism (as a normative orientation to politics) illuminates the reconfiguration of liberalism in authoritarian form since the coup d'tat of 2006.

Authoritarian: liberal, statist and plutocratic

Contending regime framers seek to embed specific patterns of political power that reflect distinct social bases articulated to state apparatuses. That articulation is usually organised around competing hegemonic projects of social, economic and political order. Following Jessop (2007: 9), in this paper the core of the state apparatus is defined as 'a distinct ensemble of institutions and organizations whose socially accepted function is to define and enforce collectively binding decisions on a given population in the name of their “common interest” or general will'. Regime framers, then, seek to direct relevant state apparatuses.

For the purposes of analytical simplification, I suggest that competing liberal, statist and plutocratic regime framers have fought for control of state apparatuses in contemporary Thai politics. The actions and influence of each reaches across different governments and periods and there is no neat chronological fix. Each camp attempts to sustain or create patterns of rule advancing different models of social order, economics and politics. 'Statist regime framers', dominant in the 1980s and in periods of junta rule, refers to those with a commitment to a strong powerful centralised state, in which agents of state institutions wield power with little popular accountability. For statists, the formal separation of power may be declaratory, but executive dominance is practised. Statists also mobilise nationalist forms of development democracy or Thai-style democracy. 'Liberal regime framers', emergent in the 1990s, refers to those building or sustaining a political system that aspires to the ideals of limited government, separation of powers, rule of law, and contingent freedoms and liberties. Inasmuch as elite liberals support democratic forms of rule they do so in conformity with polyarchic models of democracy. According to Robinson this is a system 'in which a small group actually rules and mass participation in decision-making is confined to leadership choice in elections carefully managed by competing elites' (1996: 49). 'Pluto-populist regime framers', dominant during the Thaksin regime, are those who have sought direct capital control over the state. In recent times plutocracy has articulated to a politics of populism and electoral democracy. As do statists, pluto-populists favour strong executive power, but unlike statists they can claim a direct electoral mandate.

If the surface of elite Thai politics is centred on the melodrama of cabinet faction quotas, and military and bureaucratic promotion lists, the more enduring factor that structures this surface is the struggle between competing regime-framers. The regime-frame typology is ideal-type, for Thai political forces blur at the edges in the messy reality of everyday politics (Ockey 2004: 157). The three camps are composed of various tendencies, social bases and orientations to religion, nationalism, capitalism and monarchy. Their peak-centres can not be read off their dominant social base. Statists can be found in formally non-state spheres such as the media and community associations. Liberals can be located in the predominantly statist Interior Ministry. Plutocrats can work through formally liberal institutions such as parliament. While institutional sites can be correlated to each force, the network nature of regime framers and related political groups extends into state and political institutions, making those institutions conflicted sites. The struggle has been characterised by many seemingly contradictory alliances and defections as each force has sought to advance, tactically retreat, or launch an offensive against the other. The use of state power by different regime framers against the other partly accounts for the persistence of authoritarianism in Thailand. In this framework it is possible to speak of authoritarian state power coeval with liberal, plutocratic and statist regime forms.

The term 'authoritarianism' entails that, on balance, the exercise of power is illiberal and based on the authority of those who hold the centre (either formally or obscurely), and to those whom they delegate or defer. That authority is often legitimated by democratic, authoritative and mythic claims to universal representation, or some combination of all (Malloy 1992: 232). Such universal claims are not matched by institutional arrangements. For the purposes of this paper an authoritarian state exists when an apparatus of arbitrary power (what may be called an ensemble of dictate) exerts control in a political field. Although patterned, the deployment of power in such a state is arbitrary by virtue of its relative unaccountability to those subject to it (see Linz 2000: 159). An authoritarian state tends to exert selective force, indicating its fragile legitimacy in some domains.

Authoritarianism: structures and institutions

Adopting the structural approach to democratisation (see Rueschemeyer, Stephens and Stephens 1992), the regime-frame analysis that follows is set against the changing nature of key structural features of the Thai social formation over the modern period, including the hegemonic international order and counter-hegemonic moments, state formation, the nature of capitalist development and class formation.

A bureaucratic-authoritarian regime with neo-patrimonial characteristics was birthed from the absolute monarchy of the late nineteenth century and the attendant struggles over regime form after the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932 (Jacobs 1971). During the early and middle Cold War period the Thai military regime, with considerable US support, was typical of many dictatorships, conforming to the political-development inspired 'Huntington premise' that before liberty there must be order (Glassman 2004). Within state apparatuses a technocratic elite was given relative freedom to plan capitalist economic growth (Christensen and Ammar 1993). Partly because of the resulting transformations in the dominant class structure, both elite and popular, and because of the emergence of insurgency and student activism (1960s-1970s), a liberal and democratic opening occurred in the mid-1970s, which momentarily usurped dictatorial rule. However, in 1976, against the background of international counter-hegemonic victories (Vietnam), reactive statist forces, centred in the palace, military and bureaucracy, resorted to extraordinary repression to re-establish order. It is after this period that the modern ambivalent state, in which the balance between liberal and authoritarian elements is uneven and fluid, takes shape. The founding condition is a realignment of its significant elements: the monarchy unambiguously moves to the head of a statist power bloc, supported by the military, and there occurs a re-ideologisation of the state through discourses of 'democracy with the king as head of state'.

While the military, bureaucratic and palace forces were central in state composition post 1976, by the late 1970s liberals were able to use the resulting period of political stability to steadily advance in the parliamentary and ideological domains. They did so in favourable conditions: the crushing of class organisations of farmers and workers and the privileging of capital that occurred in the post-1976 reconstruction of social order enabled a liberal opening that was not threatening to conservative state and capitalist elements. A liberal current emerged among Thai elites in state and political institutions, and among business and organic intellectuals. That current did not have to contend with a radical and powerful redistributive democratising force that might challenge the objective of market liberal democracy with Thai characteristics. Liberal regime framers allied with the statist institution of monarchy, regarding the latter as a power in its own right, and a force for social order and integration. The bounds against which there could be no transgression in the transition of the 1980s were the monarchy, property and, it was hoped, emerging constitutional law. The relative weakness of redistributive coalitions also reduced liberal reliance on the authoritarian security arms of the state for the purposes of repression, making them more willing to actively erode or bypass statist domains. They steadily advanced throughout the 1990s. The 1997 economic crisis seemed to facilitate liberal political order in Thailand (Connors 1999), demonstrating the need for a regulatory state and the rule of law. The passing of the 1997 liberally oriented 'people's constitution' was a tentative victory for Thai political liberalism. However, the recomposition of capitalism in the crisis years and the emergence of defensive nationalism led to the rise of a plutocratic leader - Thaksin Shinawatra - who smashed the liberal-conservative settlement of the 1990s.

To put flesh on the skeletal outline above it is proposed, somewhat schematically, that four distinct regime forms have emerged in the post-1976 political landscape. Firstly, decisionist regimes (1976, 1977-78, 1991-92, 2006-7), that seize sovereign power by a coup d'tat and 'reset' the rules of the game; secondly, the liberalising bureaucratic-authoritarian regime of 1978-88; thirdly, the emergent liberal-conservative regimes of 1988-91, 1992-96, 1997-2000; and fourthly, the electoral populist regime of 2001-6.1 This regime typology should be understood as an analytical tool only, for within each, elements of the other were present or emergent in different measure.

Liberalising bureaucratic-authoritarian regime (1978-88)

The predominating centre of the liberalising bureaucratic-authoritarian regime (henceforth LBAR) was the military and core state apparatuses, sanctioned by the palace and significant sections of capital. The regime liberalised over time not as a consequence of intentionality, but as a product of intra-elite struggle. Indeed, influential statist regime framers sought to limit the liberalisation of the LBAR.

The statist role of the Thai military in politics is well documented, but that of the monarchy is relatively under-scrutinised. The monarchy came into its own from the 1970s onwards when its political interventions to restore order increased its prestige and power. From that time on the expanded role of the monarchy has been sanctioned by convention, if not the written constitution. McCargo (2005), Thongchai (2008) and Handley (2006) have given specificity to the political role of the palace. Thongchai and Handley have noted the role of royalist forces in actively securing the pre-dominant position of monarchy in Thai politics into the modern era. In a path-breaking analysis of the illiberal nature of network monarchy, McCargo (2005: 501) notes that

the monarch was the ultimate arbiter of political decisions in times of crisis … the monarch intervened actively in political developments, largely by working through proxies such as privy councillors and trusted military figures; and the lead proxy, former army commander and prime minister Prem Tinsulanond, helped determine the nature of coalition governments, and monitored the process of military and other promotions.

These analyses, when coupled with earlier critical studies of the monarchy (Connors 2007 [orig. 2000]: 128-52; Hewison 1997) that have noted its statist conservative role and its place in promoting social cohesion and national forms of capitalism, enable the mapping of a coherent peak institutional force that combines with security and capital to universalise their combined corporate interests as the national interest. The wielding of power by palace elements is largely done in the absence of processes of accountability and scrutiny, ensuring that a highly personalised power system, in alliance with military elements, has been an existing feature of post-1970s regimes. Moreover, substantive ideological work promoting the monarchy in the 1980s allowed it to sustain its role even as the LBAR faded (Connors 2007: 183-90).
Statist objectives were codified in the 1978 constitution, which provided for an appointed senate and for a non-elected prime minister. During the 1980s the conservative-bureaucratic elements that had built strategies of counter-insurgency and order in the 1960s and 1970s sat in ministries, actively resisting the liberal and pluralist dynamics of a more complex national and global order. Their interests were also represented in the appointed and military dominated Senate. They sought to entrench their position, first by extending constitutional provisions to allow sitting military officers and bureaucrats to continue serving in the senate in 1983 and secondly by proposing representation of the professions in the upper house (The Nation, 18 February 1983). General Chavalit - later an elected politician and prime minister in 1996-97 - explained his support for this position: 'If we don't develop it along the right path … [it] might turn into a system of monopolistic capitalism' (The Nation, 3 March 1983).

Nevertheless, statists had to face the reality of the emergence of new political forces and the need for more complex policy deliberation. In the 1980s the 'liberal corporatist' Joint Public Private Sector Consultative Committee was allowed to function, providing peak business groups with access to shape policy (Anek 1992). Liberalisation also entailed an expanded and institutionalised legislative process in parliament that became the basis for extending political liberalism.

Statist forces continued to wield a monopoly on official national ideology. The dominant idiom of state political discourse was that the state was representative of society, and that the military had a leading political role in partnership with the powerful Interior Ministry (Prime Minister's Office 1989). The three pillars ideology of nation, religion and king conjoined with 'democracy with the king as head of state' was the statist ideological mantra. The Thai 'semi-democracy' that emerged in this period was marked by tension between the directive political role of the bureaucracy and military and the liberalisation of political space. This was reflected too in ideological shifts. By the 1980s hardened notions of Thai-style democracy that viewed the state as capable of channelling the general will of the people were superseded by more nuanced notions of development democracy. I have argued elsewhere that from the 1960s statist forces had formulated an orientation to developmental democracy, whose objective was the realisation, at some stage, of liberal democracy. Statists thus rationalised their role as laying the conditions for liberal democracy by means of leadership, control and guardianship. The language of this discourse was American political development theory and was in addition shared by liberal framers who also considered that the building of liberal democracy required careful management. The difference was partly in their time-span solution to the problems, with statist forces arguing for a long tutelage over parliament while liberal forces sought rapid change (Connors 2007: 60-127).

At the political level, the LBAR was characterised by a battle between statists and liberals within parliament and centred on constitutional amendment and strengthening parliamentary functioning and parliamentary relations with society at large. A constitutionalist element was emerging in Thai 'semi-democracy' (Chai-Anan 1990). Developing episodically, it can be seen in the push to make ministers declare assets in the 1980s, the successful struggle against constitutional amendments that attempted to further entrench military and bureaucratic rule in 1983-84, and the successful 1989 constitutional amendment that made the speaker of the House of Representatives, rather than the Senate speaker, the parliamentary president.

Popular forces, still largely traumatised by the brutal repression of the 1970s and subject to ongoing repression, had no ongoing direct bearing on regime form. If in this period liberalism coloured business-state corporatism, trade unions faced great repression, both by employers and state. Many unions were heavily regulated in a nominally tri-corporatist labour relations regime that had incentive structures for economist unionism and 'employer yellow unionism'. Military political interference in State Enterprise Unions was also common. These broad patterns have persisted to the present, but through struggle gains have been made, including social welfare insurance, minimum wage standards and legislative standards of occupational health and safety (see Brown 2007). As for farmers, the highly politicised peasant groups of the 1970s were a distant memory, but farmers successfully organised around livelihood issues, tariffs, and influenced state policy and pricing mechanisms. For the most part, economic concerns did not lead to transformative political action.

Statists in the LBAR faced challenges from within state institutions too. As Surin and Pasuk (Surin 1993: 89-93; Pasuk 1992) separately note, liberal and more globally focused outlooks developed among a younger generation of state officials and technocrats on economic questions. This process was further engendered by statist defeat around various constitutional issues in the 1980s, which gave weight to capital and political parties. A process of interpenetration of state personnel and political parties witnessed odd formations emerge, defying classification along institutional lines (see Sungsidh and Pasuk 1996). General Prem, the unelected prime minister (1980-88), survived on the basis of military and palace backing and the support of key political parties such as Chat Thai, the Social Action Party and the Democrats. Such parties, while supporting a general liberalisation of the state also supported the institutions Prem represented (military and palace) as forces for order, and were in turn rewarded with significant cabinet presence, notwithstanding occasional spats.2 They did so while pushing for parliamentary dominance and, implicitly, civilian leadership of the government.

At this conjuncture, a finely balanced authoritarian-liberal order was characterised by an odd institutional parallelism. First, was embryonic regime patterns associated with liberal democracy: the re-emergence of political parties, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a press that was establishing new standards of openness, and the relatively open political competition for power in the lower house. Second, was the persistence of statist regime patterns embodied by General Prem, whose historical role was to first advance and then protect the interests of statists associated with the military, bureaucracy and palace.

Emergent liberal-conservative regime (1988-90, 1992-95, 1997-2000)

The liberal-conservative regime was centred in the processes of expanding parliamentary power and the executive power of elected representatives in some legal centres of the Thai state and among business seeking a more responsive state structure. Many of those coming to parliamentary office through elections, for example during the Chatichai government of 1988-91, were not ideologically liberal and had distinctly plutocratic instincts, but by mobilising an electoral support base they came to challenge statist forces by dissipating the bureaucratic centres.

The term 'liberal-conservative' is used here to define a regime that is characterised by a pattern of liberal political institutions but which remains (in part) conservative in its social outlook and its use of relevant social institutions (the monarchy, cultural forms) that were held to advance the liberal principle. Use of the term 'emergent' signals that these institutions were in a state of expansion, but remained subject to countervailing actions by statists and plutocrats. They also developed a semi-hegemonic reach into the NGO and 'people sector'.

A number of structural and agential factors can explain the greater pressure to liberalise during this period: firstly, neo-liberal globalism was enforcing a new discipline that required a reformulation of state-capital relations and the stronger enforcement of impersonal contract. Secondly, the post-Cold War wave of democratisation and the emerging norms of liberal international order emboldened liberal framers in the political arena. Thirdly, the intervention of workers and progressive elements of the middle class in opposition to the military coup of 1991 - which attempted to restore power to bureaucratic and military elements - restricted the movement of authoritarian centres of the state. A contested process of liberal constitutionalism was initiated after the massacre of pro-democracy protestors in May 1992, when a constitutional amendment was passed that required that the prime minister be an elected member of parliament. However, the struggle for liberal constitutional amendments on decentralisation and rights during 1993-94 was lost as statist elements counter-mobilised. The liberal current, however, triumphed momentarily with the passing of the 1997 constitution.

By the 1990s the liberal regime framers found broader support among reformist elements in the political classes, bureaucracy, non-governmental sector, the media and among segments of the middle class. Although resistant, statists in the military and the bureaucracy were unable to block this shift. Liberal parliamentarism was broadly supported by progressive elements within a Thai localist communitarian movement that had grown from the 1980s onwards and also from an internationally influenced liberal-rights and good government social movement that shaped the political discourse of the times. These articulated to popular struggles over resource rights, labour rights and citizenship rights.

Institutionally, the liberal-conservative regime was, in its later period, located both in parliamentary arenas, and in independent agencies of the state that were created in 1997 constitution. Ideologically, liberal regime framers sought to make the ideology of 'democracy with the king as head of state' their own by drawing on discourses of royal liberalism, which saw the king as a virtuous figure - a model citizen - whose talents could oversee emerging liberal forms. This was best symbolised by the idea that the king was like a super ombudsman. These ideas were taken to a broader public and socialised by a growing civil society advocacy that also strategically mobilised monarchical discourse (Connors 2007: 214-47). Although formally supportive of a constitutional monarchy, the terms of the liberal-conservative settlement left untouched the palace's position. This allowed for its authoritarian para-political capacity to be utilised when occasion demanded.

In this period, as in the 1980s, corruption among political and state elites remained endemic, and the military and bureaucracy retained corporate identities with a capacity to shape the social field (Pasuk and Sungsidh 1994). Liberal regime framers were caught in the crossfire of plutocratic politicians and predatory state elites. Political parties remained dependent on old-time party bosses and illiberal modes of electoral mobilisation, including vote buying and electoral fraud (Sungsidh and Pasuk 1996). Additionally, statist regime framer active within the military, the Senate, the Council of State and most significantly the Interior Ministry, and some politico-plutocrats, actively organised against the liberal-conservative settlement. Some 'money-politicians' allied with statist elements to derail the passing of the 1997 liberal constitution, but failed (Connors 2002: 53-4).

The passing of the 1997 constitution coincided with the Asian economic crisis and the collapse of the Thai baht, leading to the resignation of the Chavalit government. The new coalition government, led by the Democrat Party, devised and promulgated the organic laws to make concrete the checks and balances that were at the core of the 1997 liberal constitution, while also embedding market rule according to International Monetary Fund (IMF) dictates after the 1997 economic crisis. The government's enforcement of IMF letters of intent stands as an act of stark and draconian power that reconfigured on a massive scale the nature of Thai capitalism with little regard for consultative process or deliberation. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai regularly failed to engage with popular grievances, resorting to the rhetoric of due process, both bureaucratic and liberal. A number of activists were killed during this period, subject to the whim perhaps of local notables protected by state officials; the law could only offer a resigned hand (Human Rights Commission 2004).3 Thus, authoritarian structures of capitalism and the routine abuse of human rights accompanied the difficult project of institutionalising liberal forms of power and embedding the rule of law. The liberal regime framers promised, but failed to deliver, the structuring of a new logic of political action circumscribed by a universally applicable rule of law.

Electoral pluto-populist regime (1996-97, 2001-6)

The predominating centre of the electoral pluto-populist regime (2001-6) was big capital control of the state, a strong prime minister in Thaksin Shinawatra, and various policy-interest networks who were won to Thaksin's authoritative style of rule, his agenda of globalised capitalist development and limited social redistribution. Over time a significant social base supporting Thaksin developed among what Pasuk and Baker (2008: 70-3) have termed the 'informal masses', those rural and urban populations outside the formal working classes. Arguably, Thaksin's decisive action on health and credit and his populist language eased the insecurities (of the informal mass) caused by Thailand's unbalanced outward-oriented industrialisation strategy.

I use the term 'electoral populist' to indicate the limited democratic credentials of the Thaksin regime. Electoral mobilisation occurred in a social field marked by massive disparities of power and forms of political organisation that greatly depended on existing local notables in the regions (Kasian 2006; Somchai 2008). I use the term populist not specifically to refer to the Thai Rak Thai's popular policies but, following Pasuk and Baker (2008: 68-70), to refer to Thaksin's 'three narratives' of giving, being of the people and acting on their will, an idiom he developed in his relationship with the 'informal mass'.

The structural circumstances of the rise of Thaksin and his willingness to forge a new political direction for Thailand have been widely explored (Pasuk and Baker 2004; McCargo and Ukrist 2005; Hewison 2004). These include the post-crisis recovery of the Thai economy and the emergence of a dual economy of export liberal capitalism and domestic mercantile capitalism and a global agenda that retreated from the liberal democratising agenda of the 1990s, in part because of the securitisation of foreign policy (see Connors 2006). It was in this environment that Thaksin Shinawatra launched an assault on the fragile liberal-conservative settlement.

Institutionally, Thaksin Shinawatra's regime reduced the available political space by transforming liberal institutions from within rather than by outright destruction. His politicisation (which is to say his instrumentalist use rather than constitutional use of the collective state) of the formal institutions of the 1997 settlement re-introduced in a new form the shadow of authoritarianism that circumscribed the space for liberalism premised on emerging but still very much flawed processes for application of impartial rules. This was evident through the partisanship of the Electoral Commission, the effective disablement and indifference towards the National Counter Corruption, the marginalisation of the National Human Rights Commission, and the war of attrition against the Auditor General (Hicken 2006). Perhaps most ominous was the Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situations, gazetted in July 2005 without parliamentary debate and subsequently opposed by the Democrat Party. Thaksin (International Herald Tribute, 26 August 2005) claimed 'This is a decree which makes Thailand a full democracy because we don't use martial law any longer'. While ostensibly designed for the insurgency in the 'deep south', the Decree enabled the prime minister to proclaim an 'emergency situation' when public order or security was endangered. The Decree directly attacked the 1997 Constitution by removing the right to hold accountable, through the Administrative Court, state personnel involved in the prosecution of the Emergency Decree.5 The Decree and the means of its proclamation was simply the highpoint of Thaksin's legal authoritarianism. It granted officials the ability to hold suspects without charge for longer than the martial law it replaced.

The electoral populist regime of Thaksin Shinawatra was, at least in terms of direct consequences for human rights abuse, one of the most illiberal of the three non-decisionist regimes that traverse the post-1976 period. During the Thaksin period the security and policing apparatuses of power, already habituated to deploying unscrutinised modes of power, carried out some of the worst excesses of state power in modern Thai history. Extra-judicial killings consequent to the government's declaration of the 'war on drugs' in 2003 became routine, while major massacres occurred in the south of Thailand in April and October 2004 (McCargo 2006). From a human rights perspective, these episodes were the nadir of a regime marked by erosion of the liberal-conservative settlement. Nevertheless, the regime's authoritarian inclinations were decidedly popular with people long ruled by governments heavily biased towards central development objectives, bureaucratic imperatives and big business.

Despite Thaksin's emergent authoritarianism, the liberal impulse that had emerged from processes of transition and which had influenced sections of the bureaucracy continued (especially in the Ministries of Justice and Health). And, despite authoritarian inclination, Thaksin was unable to control or disperse a royally-liberal mass movement that emerged against him and which eventually was his undoing (see Connors 2008). State media largely ignored the early protests against the Thaksin government in late 2005, and the government did not move to outright repression. In that sense, Thaksin's dismantlement of the liberal-conservative settlement should not be overstated. In contending with competing social forces in a still relatively open system of state power, he was not able to repress opposition outright. Furthermore, Thaksin had not been able to eliminate statist forces. While his direct repoliticisation of the military by appointing loyalists after assuming office surely played its part in ripping up the liberal-conservative settlement, it also led to a counter-offensive from rekindled statists who began to mobilise, plot and eventually overthrow Thaksin in the 2006 coup.

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 have the 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'tat 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: 193-5). 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. 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 vetoes ignored or defied. The politics of 2005-6 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 1991-92 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 of 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 2006-7, 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.

The state of exception and competing authoritarianisms

Following the elections of late 2007, it is difficult to designate current Thai regime form as the situation remains unclear. While politics has shifted from the decisionist phase engendered by the royalist coup to the electoral redux of the pro-Thaksin forces, the post-coup constitutional order is now fundamentally split, with decisionist politics lurking in the background. The elected Samak government which assumed office in early 2008 faces legitimacy questions from strategic elites largely as a consequence of its supportive relationship with Thaksin. The immediate focus has shifted to the courts, with various battles taking on a quasi-rule of law character. These include cases regarding electoral fraud, bribery and the alleged corruption of Thaksin and his associates. Against this background, the contesting regime framers are mobilising different idioms, with elements of the bureaucracy, military and judiciary opting for rule of law discourse, civic virtue and liberal problematics (this is an extended version of a discourse already deployed in the 1980s), and finding support among the opposition Democrat Party and the People's Alliance for Democracy, the group that organised mass rallies against Thaksin in 2006. The pro-Thaksin forces, including left-wing elements who recognise Thaksin's electoral mandate, are mobilising around democratic legitimacy and anti-privilege themes (see Connors forthcoming).

The fight against Thaksin through the courts and the broader fight to establish the rule of law in Thailand are abundant in paradox. In the present conjuncture, calls to follow the rule of law and to depend on the courts for impartial decisions are problematic. While there may be some hope of impartiality, the pending issues on corruption, party dissolution, constitutional amendment and electoral fraud that face the newly elected government are now fundamentally political questions that will be determined by balance of forces (partly indicated by the great rotation of senior civil servants that the Samak government has initiated) rather than legal rationale. This is not to say that specific legal decisions will necessarily be subject to direct intervention - but it is to say that legal deliberation on the facts will be influenced by the balance of forces.

Legal decisions on these matters will be of great consequence; in effect the judiciary are being asked, by default, to determine which mode of social order and its respective social base will prevail in the current struggle. Its judgments may well be pragmatic and possibly self-defensive. Asked if he could guarantee judgements free of favour (towards those close to Thaksin) the serving Attorney General (The Nation, 28 April 2008) responded: 'The situation is critical and conflicts are everywhere. We have to be cautious. We must be able to justify our decision. What can I do? If I favour powers that be today, the government is changed in the next two days, how can I survive then?' At the time of writing, the Attorney General appeared to be trying to delay various corruption cases against Thaksin and his associates. And, with good reason; pro-Thaksin forces questioned the legitimacy of the Assets Examination Committee set up by the decisionist junta of 2006-7 to examine corruption during the Thaksin era. The Constitutional Court ruled the committee to have legal status (The Nation, 30 June 2008), confirming the continuity of the 1952 ruling discussed above. In the current conflicted political terrain when different forces are playing absolute games for state power, the law is largely one arsenal in that struggle.

The current state of Thai politics brings into greater focus the existence of an 'ambivalent state' that traverses post-1976 Thai history, in which competing modes of legitimation, forms of leadership and the exercise of power have not settled into any enduring pattern of dominance. This has led to the resurgence of a more acute authoritarian impulse expressed in the decisionist politics of the present, and to which the liberal current is attached. In accepting the legitimacy of the 2007 constitution, but hoping to amend it, liberal regime framers have clearly indicated a willingness to use extra-constitutional means in their battle against the new forms of authoritarianism represented by the Thaksin government. The liberal current has implicitly supported the resurgence of conservative-authoritarian state structures in their willingness to find allies in the battle against pluto-populism. Liberal regime framer's historical experience of semi-democracy in the 1980s, pragmatic accommodation to the military and the palace, and elective affinity with the ideology of 'democracy with the king as head of state' are likely factors in the belief that liberalism will find a more hospitable ground for growth in a statist semi-democratic environment than a pluto-populist one. Thaksin, after all, was clearly intent on dismantling liberal political institutions and appeared unlikely to accommodate them in the limited ways that statists did during the liberal-conservative regime period.


The contest and co-existence of the three currents discussed in this paper reflects competing agendas for social order that are formed around different and changing coalitions of social forces, with none finding durable presence to completely dominate the state. Since 1976 the complex pattern of forces that have come to occupy each current has shifted, their realignment contingent on a range of factors that come to bear on the task of social order and capital accumulation. Thus, as much as Hewison (2008: 202) can speak of 'contingent democrats', to indicate the shifting position on democracy of the Thai bourgeoisie and the middle class, one may also speak of 'contingent authoritarians', to recognise those liberal and plutocratic regime framers who will utilise power, or condone its use, for the purposes of stemming power from below, in the struggle against statist regime framers, or against each other.

With political centres of power in Thailand unwilling to submit to the rules of the game, a moderated version of the politics of survival and accommodation so astutely observed by Midgal (1987) elsewhere, has obtained and structured political behaviour there. Everyone has to assume the rules potentially will not hold. In a field defined by highly personalised power, competing elites play games that reflect and relate to existing power centres, and necessarily mimic neo-patrimonial features of favour and advantage. The forces of competing hegemonic projects have to take account of this reality and build their own networks. Because power is then subject to the competing demands of informally personalised networks, conditions of insecurity emerge that require mitigating actions that further personalise the political arena.

The clash of regime framers 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 of Thailand's political history, liberal conceptions of power and the democratic franchise, have in a tortured historical process produced a negative: a decisionist authoritarianism of state and liberal regime framers.

The author thanks Chris Baker, Bill Case, Kevin Hewison, Kyaw Yin Hlaing and Duncan McCargo for offering useful suggestions on an earlier draft. Research for this article was made possible by an ARC Discovery Grant and support from the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University.

Michael K. Connors is on leave from School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, and currently teaches at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University, Hong Kong.


1 The specific governmental mix in each period cannot be treated in this article. Only the general features are dealt with.

2 In Prem's first cabinet of 37 members, 25 came from political parties, members coming from Kukrit's SAP, Chart Thai and the Democrat party (The Nation, 13 March 1980, p. 8).

3 In 1999-2000, nine activists were killed.

4 By including the years 1996-97 here I am suggesting that the Chavalit government pre-figured the Thaksin regime. I have argued elsewhere that in some senses Chavalit's own ruminations on the need for Thailand to develop a Thai version of the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party (a party of coalition factions), in part, influenced Thaksin's own political party conception of one-party government. This is a point that obviously needs further exploration, given the direct capitalist base of the Thaksin regime in contra-distinction to the mixed military, bureaucratic-capitalist, and capitalist base of Chavalit government. Chavalit was in his own way a potential populist leader, his mumbling ideological utterances on the Thai people and his intended redistributive policies indicating a shift in this direction. The point is that elements in the state were already moving towards the need to secure stable rule by one party government - one of Thaksin's main achievements. The economic crisis changed the terms upon which this project could be advanced.

5 Royal Thai Government, Emergency Decree on Public Administration in Emergency Situation, B. E. 2548 (2005) Government Gazette Vol. 122, Part 58a, 16 July B. E. 2005.


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