Thailand’s Right-Wing Parties: Keeping Democracy Close But Its Enemies Closer
Some democracy advocates may look to eradicating right-wing parties in the political landscape come the elections in May. But it should be noted that not all right-wing parties are harmful to democracy.
As the dissolution of the House of Representatives in late March heralded the arrival of another election on 14 May, Thailand finds itself in yet another transitional phase away from authoritarian rule. Public debates and electoral campaigns are flourishing, reminiscent of the months preceding the 2019 elections. Among democracy enthusiasts, a central question looms: how can they eradicate authoritarian legacies, prevent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha or his mentor-turned-rival Prawit Wongsuwan from returning to power, and definitively eliminate pro-military factions from politics?
To address these concerns, many voters may gravitate toward parties that explicitly champion democratic values, such as the Pheu Thai Party (Pheu Thai) or the Move Forward Party (MFP). Conversely, parties like the incumbent Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), now led by Prawit, and General Prayut’s fledgling United Thai Nation (UTNP) are often dismissed by democracy advocates as corrupt vestiges of the military regime that must be extirpated. Similarly, the long-standing Democrat Party (DP) and the Bhumjai Thai Party (BJT), both center-right, are frequently perceived as opportunistic, unprincipled, and ambivalent in their allegiance to democratic ideals.
While the importance of anti-military parties like Pheu Thai and MFP in maintaining Thailand’s tenuous democracy cannot be denied, it is equally crucial for a thriving liberal democracy to have respectable center-right and right-wing parties. The ideologies of these parties can be delineated along two primary dimensions. Economically, they advocate for the protection of property rights and the promotion of free markets, prioritising these values over wealth redistribution efforts. Socially, they espouse a conservative perspective, upholding established norms, institutions, and traditional moral authorities.
Indeed, the failures of Thai democracy in the past two decades can be attributed to the center-right’s inherent reluctance to adhere to democratic norms and their affinity for the military. For instance, key figures in the DP and other moderate right-wing parties seemingly endorsed military coups in 2006 and 2014 against the Shinawatra siblings (former premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck), leading to an association between the Thai conservative right and a preference for authoritarianism.
However, the histories of conservative right-wing parties in Europe and Latin America suggest that not all right-wing parties are inherently harmful to democracy. Daniel Ziblatt’s comparative study of nineteenth-century English and German conservative parties found that if right-wing parties can gain a substantial following and occasionally win elections, they may tolerate or even support democracy. Conversely, if they feel perpetually defeated and threatened with the loss of their privileges, they are less likely to favour democratisation and more likely to resort to authoritarianism.
James Loxton’s research on parties and party systems in post-Cold War Latin America revealed that many military regimes had established “authoritarian successor parties” (ASPs) — which are predominantly conservative — prior to transitioning from authoritarian rule. Similar to the PPRP or UTNP, these parties aimed to oversee the transition and compete for power through elections, among other malign objectives such as hindering processes of transitional justice and propping up vestiges of authoritarianism. Loxton contends that ASPs can potentially benefit democracy by fostering party system institutionalisation, incorporating potential spoilers into the democratic system, and promoting transitions to democracy in other countries. While contemporary Latin American democracies are far from perfect, the absence of military coups (with the exceptions of Bolivia and Honduras) and the continued presence of democratic conservative right-wing parties offer support for this perspective.
While the importance of anti-military parties like Pheu Thai and MFP in maintaining Thailand’s tenuous democracy cannot be denied, it is equally crucial for a thriving liberal democracy to have respectable center-right and right-wing parties.
In Thailand, however, the conservative right is either too weak to attract a significant nationwide voter base or excessively wedded to authoritarian tendencies. Instead of reconciling their conservatism with democratic principles, they frequently engage in money politics and blatant clientelism, undermining their credibility and ideological appeal. As a result, the DP faced a considerable backlash in the 2019 elections, losing votes in their traditional strongholds. In a similar manner, the UTNP and PPRP, dominated by autocratic figures with a penchant for clientelism and authoritarianism, are hampered by their poor economic management as incumbents. Therefore, they are expected to perform worse in the 2023 elections than in 2019.
In light of this context, there are two key lessons to be learned. First, moderate conservative right-wing parties must commit to playing by democratic rules. For any hope of progress, center-right parties like the DP and BJT must wholeheartedly embrace liberal democratic values and abandon factional politics. By doing so, they can provide a platform for potential democracy spoilers to be integrated into the democratic system and serve as a bulwark against the far right, such as the PPRP and UTNP backsliding into authoritarianism. To be sure, the success of the DP under former Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai in the 1990s proves that this is not entirely chimerical.
Secondly, it is imperative that far-right parties like the PPRP and UTNP engage in genuine reform initiatives as part of a broader democratisation project, including addressing the sensitive issue of the lese-majeste law and reforms to the monarchy. Whether Thai voters like it or not, the ultra-conservative faction is a permanent fixture in Thai politics. Attempting to remove them entirely from the political landscape could result in a reversion to the vicious cycle of military coups. Consequently, the anticipated pro-democratic coalition — presumably led by the PT and MFP — must work diligently to find common ground with these parties, including a constructive dialogue on those issues. Importantly, if the PT or MFP assumes governmental power, there must be room for the right-wing to express their opinions and concerns.
In conclusion, the path towards a robust and enduring democracy in Thailand is one that demands an unwavering commitment to pluralism. This does not mean that Thai voters should cast their vote for the right-wing blindly, as their past actions have often impeded the progress of democracy. Rather, it is an appeal to foster a political environment in which diverse voices coexist, and where parties across the spectrum learn to operate within a democratic framework. By providing an environment where the right-wing learns to embrace the tenets of democracy, and using ballots as a means of expressing the will of the people, Thailand can step forward into a future that is firmly rooted in democratic principles and values.
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.