From a young age, we learn to make the most of the hand we’re dealt. As time goes on, we learn to adapt. We learn to use the mechanisms in place to achieve our goals. We see this in politics as well. In the context of democracy, authoritarian leaders nowadays, attempt to use more subtle practices to exercise their power through democratic mechanisms. Many countries exhibit this kind of democratic backsliding, especially Thailand. Thailand serves as a great example for how leaders can gain and maintain power by limiting the number of checks that are placed on themselves. But first, it’s important to understand what exactly democratic backsliding is.
What is democratic backsliding?
Democratic backsliding or democratic erosion refers to the incremental changes that occur to undermine or dismantle democratic institutions. If any action or measure reduces some aspect of democracy — such as free and fair elections, checks and balances, etc. — that’s considered to provide evidence for a country becoming less democratic, or backsliding. One political science scholar, Nancy Bermeo, argues that the nature of backsliding differs throughout history. Nowadays, we see more subtle forms of backsliding, many of which use the legal mechanisms in place for antidemocratic ends.
One form of this is the change we see in how coups are orchestrated. Historically, coup d’états, where a military or state official attempts to take over the position of the existing executive, were more common. Now, promissory coups, coups framed as a temporary suspension of democracy with a promise to return back to democratic practices (e.g. resuming elections) as soon as possible.
Another form of backsliding is an executive coup. This is where a democratically elected chief executive attempts to gain power all at once by suspending the constitution. The modern-day form is called executive aggrandizement, where the executive weakens any checks on their power to reduce the control anyone else has on them.
A history of coups…
Coups are a phenomenon Thailand has become all too familiar with. From 1946 to 2016, Thailand has had 10 coups and 17 new constitutions. With coups happening so often, we must ask how those coups are allowed to happen in the first place. In Thailand, a major predictor of a coup being successful is if the king legitimizes it. If the king supports your attempt at a coup, you automatically gain the power. Another major incentive for using a coup to consolidate power is the fact that there are no repercussions. All the constitutions that the military leaders write, make sure to grant amnesty to those who carry out a coup. When there are no consequences, what are the incentives to not perform a coup?
When we eliminate accountability for officials, we remove one mechanism to “check” that official. The entire reasoning behind checks and balances is to make sure not one branch gets too much power. This policy of granting amnesty to coup orchestrators essentially gives military officials a green light to strip away power from an elected official without any consequences. Bermeo would label this as executive aggrandizement. Not placing any restrictions on coups, by default, prevents any opposition force from challenging the military official’s power.
We can see a trend emerging among all of these coups. The typical pattern that’s observed is a military group will seize control, then hold elections around a year later. This allows them to have a veil of democracy and place the military officers into power “democratically.” The question then becomes: how does a military leader get elected when the people tend to not vote for military parties?
What happened in 2014?
Prayuth Chan-ocha became the prime minister of Thailand in 2014 through a military coup. This established a military “junta” or a military group, known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). As Bermeo predicts, under the framework of a promissory coup, the military junta said that it was necessary “to maintain the peace and order of the nation and the reconciliation of the people. Instead of simply consolidating power with no explanation, the junta makes this promise to the people of Thailand and frames their actions in a way that makes it seem like a necessary step for a better future. Rather than moving away from democracy, they are going in search of democracy, and this coup is part of the journey.
Prayuth Chan-ocha is the prime minister. Now what?
Having made the promise to be democratic, they are now forced to follow through. The democratic step to take would be to hold free and fair elections to allow the people to select who they want as their leader. However, for obvious reasons, military juntas tend to lose those elections. So what did they do? They found their answers in a new constitution.
Prime minister Prayuth Chan-ocha wrote the constitution in a way that makes gaining support easier. In Thailand, the prime minister needs a simple majority in the legislature to win. Out of the 750 members of the legislative branch, 250 belong to the Senate and the other 500 make up the House of Representatives. The entire Senate is nominated by the army, so it’s safe to say that a military general running as a candidate for prime minister has 250 votes off the bat. This leaves only 126 votes that the prime minister needs to secure.
How is this an example of democratic backsliding?
As we think back to our definition of democratic backsliding– incremental changes that occur to undermine or dismantle democratic institutions– we see that this is a prime example of democratic backsliding. Making changes to the constitution and providing a systematic advantage for the incumbent, undermines the right for people to vote for who they actually want, which is a fundamental principle of democracy. By modifying the number of votes required to vote him into office, Prayuth Chan-ocha is minimizing the power of the opposition to pose a legitimate competition. And as we know, without political competition, the people don’t have a choice to make for who they’re voting for.
Why does this matter?
Ultimately, this is a human rights issue. Since the 2014 coup, Thai citizens have faced numerous human rights violations, down to the most fundamental rights. We see censorship of the people and the press, leaving no room for dissent. Thousands of activists, journalists, and protesters have been intimidated into silence and detained for their actions without any protection from mistreatment.
We see time and time again the creative ways these military leaders maintain their power. It begs the question of why they need to resort to these antidemocratic methods? If they did what the people wanted, why can’t they get elected through free and fair elections? Why would they need to execute a military coup to establish democracy? Why, why, why. When an authoritarian leader comes into power, they want to push their own agendas. And to remain in power, they can’t be “checked” by the people. There goes one fundamental human right. To remain in power, they also can’t be “checked” by the other branches. There goes democracy, leaving them with the title of “military dictatorship.”