Political Legitimacy in Thailand

From the Series: The Wheel of Crisis in Thailand

Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY SA.

On May 22, 2014, as this collection was in the early stages of production, Army Commander General Prayuth Chan-Ocha seized power, staging the twelfth successful military coup in Thailand since 1932 and the second in the last eight years. The junta presented the coup as a solution to the wheel of crisis that has gripped the country since 2005. However, rather than stopping the wheel from turning, the Army simply dusted off an old political strategy of direct intervention that deepened the crisis in 2006 and will likely do so once again.

Despite the junta’s boastful and grotesque attempt to bring peace and happiness through silence and repression, almost everyone, across the political spectrum, agrees that the never-ending crisis is an epiphenomenon of a deep rift in Thai society. My argument here is that this rift has been opened by an ongoing oscillation between two social structures, understood as “a set of ideas about the distribution of power” (Leach 1954, 4) and about concrete techniques for mobilizing people and governing the nation. On one side, there is a social structure that conceptualizes power as springing from barami, a charisma that comes from moral conduct and resides with “good people” (khon dī). On the other, there is a structure that conceives of power as residing in the ability to mobilize masses, whether through influence and patronage or through democratic elections. The former structure lies behind the rhetoric and practices of the Yellow Shirts and traditional elites, their call for moral leaders, and their distrust of electoral democracy and hatred of the “Thaksin system” (rabop Thaksin, in reference to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra). The latter animates the Red Shirts’ demands to respect electoral results and to question established economic, political, and legal inequalities.

These two social structures, however, do not exist as distinct realities but as “ideal models” that orient political practices. In other words, barami and popular support have coexisted, and will continue to coexist in Thai society, but their balance is always in flux. The present crisis is a struggle over what this balance may look like in the present and the foreseeable future.

Up until the early 2000s, the equilibrium between these two ways of organizing and legitimizing power revolved around the figure of King Bhumibol Adulyadej as the center and ultimate source of barami, as well as the holder of unmatched popular support, described as “a ‘super-mandate’ from the people . . . that trumps the electoral mandates of political leaders” (McCargo 2005, 505). This position has been clear in the political turmoil that unsettled the Thai polity in the 1970s and the 1990s. In both cases, Bhumibol was able to cast himself as the ultimate arbiter and power broker, overseeing which way the social structure would oscillate, either toward democratic politics after the 1992 crisis or toward the dictatorship of “good people” after the 1970s. However, due to the king’s weakening health, the rise of political consciousness among the Thai population, and the palace’s uncharacteristically visible taking of sides since 2005, this role has entered into question. As a consequence, unmoored from the primacy of Bhumibol, the country’s social structure began to oscillate more toward an idea of power legitimized through the ability to mobilize people, rather than barami. The surge of lèse-majesté charges since 2006 to silence critique, along with increasing questioning of the palace’s role in politics, are reactions to the growing difficulties of the monarchy to operate as a stabilizer. The Yellow Shirts’ repulsion for Thaksin’s system, which they see as replacing “moral authority” with corrupt populist ability to mobilize support, is just another reaction to this oscillation.

Simultaneously, the idea that power should spring from popular support, rather than innate moral character, has been gaining momentum around the figure of Thaksin. A telecommunications tycoon and son of a fairly wealthy political family from northern Thailand, Thaksin became the first elected prime minister in Thai history to complete a full term in office. In his second election in 2006, he obtained an unprecedented one-party victory and, through proxy leaders, has won every single democratic election since. Even though many of his supporters acknowledge that the Yellow Shirts’ claim that Thaksin was involved in corruption while in office may be accurate, they maintain that his electoral victory should be respected and that these accusations should be adjudicated through a fair legal process and not through military and judiciary coups.

While existing analyses acknowledge this shift in ways of organizing power in contemporary Thailand, they often focus on specific actors, social groups, and strata—whether elites, bureaucrats, or social masses—rather than on a shift in social structures itself. In so doing, they mistake the trees for the forest. Focusing on structural change, instead, we recognize not only individuals’ positions in the social system but also, as Leach argues, “changes in the ideal system itself: changes, that is, in the power structure” (Leach 1954, 10). Such changes, I suggest, are the engine that drives the Thai wheel of crisis, an engine that runs in an oscillating fashion, not in a linear progression.

A linear view of structural change has been the other shortcoming of present analyses. Even scholars who recognize the emerging struggle between “the traditional conception of a stratified paternal-authoritarian state where power emanates from the king” and “claims [of] popular sovereignty as the basis of legitimacy” (Dressel 2010, 446, 447), in fact, assume a teleological progression from one to the other. The children of democratization theory fail to acknowledge that political transformations in Thailand since the end of the absolute monarchy have occurred as “gradual swings of the pendulum, with dictatorial conservatism, generally backed by the Army, alternating with more democratic rule” (Stent 2012, 22). What we are witnessing now is one such oscillation, as violent as what happened with the end of absolute monarchy in 1932 and with the bloody struggle of the 1970s and as equally uncertain and impermanent. As the endless cycle of elections, protest, military coup, counter-protest, judiciary coup, and once again military coup demonstrates, the ultimate outcome is up for grabs. With both sides trying to oscillate the pendulum their way, however, the risk remains that an unstable equilibrium that ruled the Thai state since its transformation in a constitutional monarchy will be torn apart beyond repair.


Dressel, Björn. 2010. “When Notions of Legitimacy Conflict: The Case of Thailand.” Politics and Policy 38, no. 3: 445–69.

Leach, Edmund. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: George Bell & Sons.

McCargo, Duncan. 2005. “Network Monarchy and Legitimacy Crises in Thailand.” Pacific Review 18, no. 4: 499–519.

Stent, James, 2012. “Thoughts on Thailand’s Turmoil, 11 June 2010.” In Bangkok May 2010: Perspectives on a Divided Thailand, edited by Michael J. Montesano, Pavin Chachavalpongpun, and Aekapol Chongvilaivan, 15–41. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.