On October 15, when escalating protests led to thousands of demonstrators gathering publicly on the anniversary of a student-led uprising against a military dictatorship, Prime Minister Prayut invoked a state of emergency in Bangkok. The Emergency Decree cited “groups inviting, inciting and committing illegal assembly” and affecting “peace and order” as some of the reasons for its invocation. Activists and protest leaders were arrested and other peaceful protestors were charged with illegal assembly and sedition.
Less than a month earlier, the country’s state of emergency had been extended for the sixth time since March. That extension was “purely intended for disease control purposes”. To the Thai government, it included investigating and arresting social media for government criticisms and spreading alleged misinformation about the pandemic.
These invocations of the 2005 Emergency Decree are criticized to be excuses to deprive citizens of civil liberties. They look like instances of democratic erosion, whereby the Prime Minister uses the veneer of legality or a period of crisis to subvert democratic checks and balances .
But is Thailand experiencing democratic erosion?
Thailand’s current regime somewhat resembles democratic governance: it has a constitution, political parties with differing views, a Prime Minister, and certain legal procedures. News articles discuss Thailand’s “hybrid democracy” or describe its constitution as “a hybrid of democratic and non-democratic elements”. Some even call the regime a “democratic dictatorship”. But these characterizations can lead to confusion—there is a difference between the superficial structures that make up a democracy and the qualities that constitute a democratic system.
According to Dahl, citizens in a democracy should be able to formulate their preferences, signify their preferences, and have these preferences weighted equally in the conduct of government. Civil liberties such as the right to vote, freedom of expression, free and fair elections, and the right of political leaders to compete for vote and support are some of the institutional characteristics that make such a system responsive to its citizens .
The independent research institute, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), incorporates these elements as well as other principles of democracy, such as protecting individual and minority rights, into a measurement of regime type. Similarly, the Freedom House score measures the degree of freedom in a given country based on political rights and civil liberties. Neither of the two approaches considers Thailand a democracy.
For the past few years, V-Dem has consistently coded Thailand as a “closed autocracy”, listing it as one of the top-ten main autocratizing countries from 2009-2019. According to Freedom House, Thailand is one point away from being categorized as “Not Free”, and receives only 6 points out of 40 points for political rights. For context, a score of 20 or better is required for a country to be considered an “electoral democracy”—the minimum designation for a democratic system.
Thailand’s current regime is not a democracy, but it disguises itself as one.
In a televised address in 2015, Prayut promised to return democracy to the country. “We want to see an election that will take place under the new constitution… that will be free and fair, so that it can become a solid foundation for a complete Thai democracy,” he said.
In 2016, a referendum was held to decide the fate of the country’s military-drafted constitution, but campaigning against the document was banned, dozens of people were detained, and the largest opposition parties rejected it.
When the country finally held general elections as promised in 2019, it was tightly controlled by the military junta and abided by the new constitutional rules written by the military.
In the same year, pro-democracy activists were reported to experience repeated attacks by masked gangs believed to be affiliated with the military; the head of the opposition party and fierce critic of the government was disqualified from parliament—allegedly for violating media ownership rules.
With the repression of civil liberties and political rights as well as the failure to incorporate citizens’ preferences in an institutional setting, Thailand is not a democracy—even if it seemingly works within the structure of a democratic system. The Prime Minister’s use of the Emergency Decree (which is itself undemocratic) is therefore not a symptom of democratic backsliding, but instead a continuation of autocratic practices by the current regime.
Why is the difference between democratic erosion and the continuation of autocratic behavior important?
In the case of Thailand, the checks and balances requisite in a democratic system have already been dismantled prior to the state of emergency. Thailand has been an autocracy for years, and it should be recognized as such. Instead of subtly undermining democracy’s checks and balances as in the case of democratic erosion, the Thai regime is using democracy as a shield for autocracy.
Though the current government may have come to power via a coup, camouflaging authoritarian acts with ostensibly democratic characteristics—such as creating a constitution—legitimizes and prolongs its rule. In the words of political scientist Nancy Bermeo, the legitimacy and societal importance of having a democratic structure offer “ironic proof of democracy promotion’s partial success”.
While there are currently domestic protests, society’s alarm bells both domestically and internationally may not have been as sensitive to the regime’s actions as it may otherwise be if there had been no promise or pretext of democracy. After all, General Prayut has been Prime Minister for more than six years, the longest consecutive term since 1988. Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, 2018. How democracies die,77.  Robert A. Dahl, 1971. Polyarchy; participation and opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press.  Nancy Bermeo, “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (2016): 15.