How populism is defined and wielded in today’s Thai politics has implications for the strength and sustainability of the country’s political development.
During Thailand’s 2023 election campaign season, parties and candidates vied for voters’ attention with ambitious policy proposals addressing the country’s persistent income inequality. Campaign pledges included raising wages, expanding social welfare, and investing in public services like education and healthcare. These proposals led pundits and commentators to label many parties and policies as “populist” or prachaniyom in Thai. However, this assessment is based on an incomplete understanding of populism in the Thai context. It is crucial to examine the term more closely to avoid mischaracterising Thailand’s political landscape.
Populism’s definition is under considerable dispute within academia. However, among various understandings, one particularly compelling definition is that of Kurt Weyland, who sees populism as best conceived as a political strategy where leaders galvanise a substantial following by positioning themselves and the people against perceived enemies – be it established elites, institutions, or reformists. Such a strategy hinges on the personalistic leadership of charismatic figures who leverage upon popular grievances to consolidate their power.
In the West and mainstream scholarship, populism conjures up images of charismatic leaders like former U.S. President Donald Trump, France’s Marine Le Pen or Hungary’s Victor Orbán. Populist leaders, regardless of their political leanings, typically employ divisive rhetoric and antagonistic strategies to rally public support through direct, unmediated means such as referenda, mass media, and public rallies. This trend is not confined to developed democracies; Latin America has also witnessed numerous populist leaders.
Yet, in Thailand, the general understanding of populism arguably remains grounded in an outdated definition formulated by U.S.-based conservative economists in the 1990s. Drawing on cases in South America, they depicted populism as a series of macroeconomic policies prioritising growth and income distribution while minimising inflationary risks and the importance of external market dynamics. Some of the Thai intelligentsia have adopted this definition, and this has arguably led to the current mischaracterisation of the Thai political landscape, as the focus on socioeconomic policies overshadows the more alarming aspects of populist strategies, such as divisive rhetoric and other threats to democratic norms.
Following the political aspect of populism, such us-versus-them populist stratagems were not fundamental to the past campaigns of prominent Thai “populist” figures such as former prime ministers (PM) Thaksin Shinawatra, his sister Yingluck, or his daughter Paetongtarn – the current leader of the “populist” Pheu Thai (PT) Party. Instead, they are more conspicuous in some of the other Thai parties’ campaigns.
Consider the centre-left Move Forward Party (MFP) and its predecessor, the Future Forward Party (FFP), which drew inspiration from left-wing populist parties in Western Europe. The MFP and these European parties embrace strategies that accentuate the people’s interests, championing so-called new politics against old politics or advocating for the people against an entrenched elite and the military.
Thai right-wing populist parties, including the United Thai Nation Party (UTNP), Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), and the Thai Pakdee Party (TPD), have increasingly adopted nationalist and exclusionary tropes. Dr. Warong Dechgitvigrom of TPD, for example, is an ultra-royalist who has vociferously asserted that anyone who criticises the monarchy or supports amending or abolishing the lèse-majesté law is a threat to and an enemy of the Thai nation. Similarly, UTNP leader Pirapan Salirathavibhaga has fervently pledged to “get rid (of) once and for all the ‘nation-haters’ and anti-monarchists.”
Thaksin Shinawatra’s term as prime minister (2001-2006) underscored the complexities of what constitutes populism in Thai politics. His economic policies, labelled as “populist” and criticised as fiscally irresponsible, did not precipitate economic disaster but instead helped to mitigate the economic disparities worsened by the 1997-8 Asian financial crisis. Following his ousting by the 2006 military coup, however, Thaksin’s rhetoric shifted towards a more traditionally populist narrative, invoking a struggle of the “prai” (people) versus the “ammart” (elite).
How would a re-evaluation of populism as a divisive political strategy – not just economic policies – help one to see Thailand’s political future more clearly? First, distinguishing between a certain type of economic policy and the underlying political logics that characterise true populist movements will more accurately reveal the objectives and strategies of the political players. This should prevent hasty dismissals of economic policies genuinely aimed at reducing inequality as merely prachaniyom. It would also promote a more nuanced understanding and scrutiny of the term’s usage in political discourse.
As Thailand navigates its political transition, an accurate understanding of the intricacies of populism within its unique political landscape is of utmost importance.
Second, by reconceptualising populism as political stratagems, one might be able to identify those policies and tactics that could significantly impact Thailand’s brittle democratic development. The unwavering support for the military and the monarchy from right-wing populist parties like UTNP and PPRP should raise questions about their commitment to liberal democratic principles. Similarly, the bellicose language used by the left-wing populist MFP against the conservative wing and the establishment should prompt scrutiny of its commitment to political pluralism.
As Thailand navigates its political transition, an accurate understanding of the intricacies of populism within its unique political landscape is of utmost importance. By reconceptualising populism as not just the use of popular economic policies but also as divisive, mass-based political strategies, Thai citizens and observers may be better equipped to distinguish between sound economic policies and populist tactics that potentially threaten the country’s fragile institutions.
Ultimately, prachaniyom as a term should be seen with a discerning eye to ensure that it is neither misused nor oversimplified. This awareness might help to safeguard Thailand’s democracy, ensuring that Thai political discourse remains anchored in fact and reason rather than in mischaracterisation and oversimplification.
Treethep Srisa-nga is a PhD student in Political Science at the University of Florida and the managing editor of the Newsletter for the American Political Science Association’s (APSA) Comparative Politics Section.