This past week, Thai prime minister---and junta leader---General Prayuth Chan-ocha ended martial law, which had been in place since the May 2014 coup, and replaced it by invoking an article of the interim constitution that gives him nearly-absolute powers. This shift did not necessarily mean Thailand is moving any closer to a return to democracy.
General Prayuth also has repeatedly noted that Thailand eventually will return to democracy, but that whatever democracy emerges will be what he and many Thai elites call a “Thai-style democracy” or a democracy with Thai characteristics. What exactly they mean is unclear. To some elites, such a Thai-style democracy may mean little more than a system in which there are multiple institutions that represent elite interests and that can overrule or undermine representatives elected by a popular vote. Such a system would not fit any standard definition of an electoral democracy. But other Thai elites, including even some military elites, may have in mind a system that contains free elections, and rule by elected leaders, but that also reflects Thai traditions, culture, and history. After all, Germany’s highly federal democratic system reflects Germany’s history; Indonesia’s and Spain’s decentralized political systems reflect those countries’ wide range of ethnicities and cultures; and, many other democracies have political systems that are designed in some way to reflect their unique peoples and cultures.
In a recent podcast with Asia News Weekly, I discussed the idea of Thai democracy, and whether Thailand could craft a political system that was both democratic and reflected Thai traditions. You can hear the podcast here.