Thailand’s current political demonstrations suggest that demography matters for democracy.
|Note: The chart in Figure 2 has been updated since the commentary was first published.|
The ongoing political demonstrations in Thailand signal a landmark in Thailand’s political history. Many of them are being led by younger Thais seeking a more democratic society through fresh elections and a new constitution. Long-standing limits to public expression regarding the Thai monarchy are being transgressed by calls for its reform.
The country’s significant “youth bulge” is a contributing factor in these norm-shattering demonstrations’ timing, size and make-up. These demonstrations, however, also present a current test of the larger historical relationship between shifting age structures and democratization, a burgeoning field of demographic analysis. A growing number of demographers posit a positive, causal relationship between ageing societies and deepening democratization.
Thailand is one of Southeast Asia’s fastest ageing societies, with a current life expectancy of around 77 years. In 2019, the fertility rate stood at only 1.5, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. The old-age dependency ratio hit 17.5 per 100 persons between the ages of 15 to 64 years old, up from only 6.7 per 100 in 1970. The rapid ageing of Thailand may provide, at least, a complementary, partial explanation for not only the ongoing political turmoil but also preceding incidents that have increasingly polarised Thai politics since a military coup toppled the democratically elected Thaksin Shinawatra administration in 2006.
How does an ageing society encourage democracy? Fertility and mortality shifts form part of a series of demographic transitions in modernizing societies. As visualised above, advances in economic and social development lead societies to transition from high fertility and high mortality rates to low fertility and low mortality rates (Figure 1). The early stages of transition lead to lower mortality through improved healthcare, which in turn leads to enhanced levels of well-being, rising life expectancy, and a growing population that can exert a destabilising effect on the state.
This is followed by lower fertility in the later stages of transition due to improved economic conditions, which also lead to changing expectations and values that may question autocratic regimes. Falling birth rates lead to a “bulge” in the numbers of adults aged 18-50 who gradually outnumber both the very young at the bottom and the old at the top. Such a transition will result in a population pyramid that correspondingly bulges in the middle and eventually becomes more ‘top-heavy’ over time, a process which Thailand is experiencing (Figure 2).
As observed in Thailand today, these demographic conditions and the resulting rising median age can contribute to a broader process of democratisation. The current protests against the Prayut regime consist of greater numbers of younger adults and youths than earlier protest movements. More than in prior political conflicts, generational differences are at the core of the current stand-off. The sheer volume of younger Thais at the vanguard of today’s pro-democracy demonstrations in contrast to the smaller and older cohorts of royalist counter-protestors is revealing.
This implies that the anti-democratic elements, dubbed the “Bangkok middle class”, are increasingly outnumbered and will be outlived by a new generation of pro-democratic Thais who reject elitist and anachronistic practices favoring entitlement and prestige by birth. The democratising effects of Thailand’s ageing society may yield unprecedented outcomes in the months and years ahead.
China provides a seemingly persuasive counterexample questioning the hypothesised links between demography and democracy. Despite China’s demographic situation being very similar to Thailand, there is a complete absence of large-scale democratizing movements. This suggests that there are other intervening variables at work. China is near the bottom of the annual World Press Freedom Index published by Reporter Without Borders, reflecting the country’s significant structural restrictions on the nature of public expression and information dissemination. In 2020, China again ranked 177th out of 180 countries analysed. Thailand came in at 140th, down four places from 2019.
Another reason proposed by demographers for non-democratising counter-examples like China are powerful underlying ideological commitments that have their foundations in education systems and one-party political domination. China’s multi-tiered system of co-optation, surveillance and monitoring is a formidable obstacle against any potential challenges to the political status quo.
The onset of an ageing society, therefore, may encourage democratisation as societies undergo demographic transition, but it is not a sufficient condition itself. Policy-makers fearful of demonstrations and democratisation may seek to reverse this demographic transition that can only be delayed but not stopped. Alternatively, we can learn to value the probable process of democratisation that follows demographic transition, in spite of its alleged costs.
Kevin S.Y. Tan was a Visiting Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.