The article critically analyses the evolution of democracy in Turkey and Thailand by assessing the role of the military in state politics as well as policies by political leaders in Turkey and Thailand amidst the recent elections in both states in May.
May 2023 was a turbulent month for international politics and the global state of democracy. While Turkey saw the re-election of incumbent President Erdogan after a historical second round, Thai voters overwhelmingly favoured the reformist opposition party (Poyrazlar, 2023; Regalado, 2023). These elections have served as litmus tests for the state of democracy in Turkey and Thailand, two countries that were once seen as potential democratic role models in their respective regions (Taş, 2015). Although they have seen a degree of democratic backsliding in recent years, each interpreted their own governments as “democratic”. This article examines the relevance of Turkish and Thai style democracy in light of the recent elections and their diverging outcomes.
Over the past century, democracy has become embedded in political science as the ideal mode of governance. However, democracy is also being challenged more and more. Rather than framing their criticism as outright anti-democracy, opponents tend to use democratic discourse to criticise democratic practices (Tomgusehan & Kececi, 2018).
While Western-style liberal democracy encompasses dimensions like the rule of law, regular, free and fair elections, freedom and equality (D’Elia, 2016), every society has its own type of democracy shaped by historical legacy, culture and institutional context (Turan, 2022). Moreover, democratisation is not a linear process but rather one with ups and downs, sometimes characterised as ‘waves’ (Huntington, 1993). This accounts for the uneven development that new democracies frequently experience, exhibiting illiberal tendencies due to lacking institutions and legal infrastructure (Taspinar, 2014). Consequently, they are struggling to manage an effective division of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government and defend rights and liberties that correspond to a constitutional democracy (Taspinar, 2014). Therefore, it is important to identify the Turkish and Thai versions of democracy before diving into the analysis.
The Turkish model of democracy mainly evolved during the 1990s and was further shaped by the current ruling Party for Justice and Development, or the AKP (Dede, 2011). Initially, the Turkish Republic was considered an attractive example for other Middle Eastern countries. Not only did it have relative economic success, it also combined a multi-party system with regular elections and constitutional liberties (Dede, 2011). A key pillar of the 1982 Turkish constitution is its secularism, or laiklik (Taspinar, 2014). It was inspired by the French laïcité, which refers not only to a clear separation between state and religion, but is also associated with strong state control over religion (Celik, 2018). Though theoretically a representative democracy, Turkey attaches more importance to national unity and stability compared to other types of democracy. This is reflected in its constitution, in which the state is put above the social consent of its citizens (Bilgin, 2008).
Meanwhile, the concept of Thai Style democracy (TSD) was first defined as “democracy with the king as head of state” in the 1968 constitution, though it is better understood in the context of Thainess and the ideology of “Nation, Religion and King”. The king is envisioned as the moral leader and father of the nation and is therefore key to democratic rule, as he embodies the moral check and balance on government (Kitirianglarp, 2010, p. 187). During his rule in 1959 - 1963 General Sarit promulgated the ideology of Thainess as Nation, Religion and King. The monarchy’s core role in Thainess meant that “the stability of the monarchical institutions and choice of a good person to govern were more important than the parliament and constitution based on the principle that sovereign power belonged to the people” (Sattayanurak, 2020, p. 244). TSD was thus conveyed as an adapted version of democracy to the Thai context.
Case Study 1: Turkey
2023 marks the 100-year anniversary of the Turkish Republic, which has experienced several waves of (anti-)democratisation after the fall of the Ottoman Empire a century ago (Ünveren, 2023). In the early 2000s, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan led the newly established AKP, which identified as conservative democratic with Islamic roots, to become the ruling party (Hale & Ozbudun, 2010). The AKP’s conservative democratic ideology embraces democratic principles while also holding onto culturally conservative ideas (Simsek, 2013). Additionally, the AKP has often been referred to as political Islamist - somewhat remarkable when secularism is enshrined in the Turkish constitution (Ghanim, 2009). This has resulted in many debates about the AKP blurring the lines between secularism and applying Islamic ideas, though the AKP itself denies being Islamist (Tank, 2005).
Around the same time as the AKP’s rise to power, the country launched accession negotiations to join the European Union (EU). However, Turkey’s democratic progress has since waned (Tapinar, 2014). Following the 2013 Gezi protests and the a failed coup attempt in 2016, Erdogan imposed measures that continue to jeopardise Turkish democracy (Bilgiç, 2018). These include a crackdown on coup-plotters and civil society, more media restrictions, and constitutional amendments that extended Erdogan’s presidential power (Esen & Gumuscu, 2017; Milan, 2016). Three key factors play a role in Turkey's changing interpretation of democracy: Erdogan’s consolidation of power, his interpretation of democracy, and concerns about unfair election practices.
First, concerns have arisen regarding President Erdogan’s growing concentration of power. His prolonged tenure has blurred the lines between the state and his own political ambitions (Bayulgen, Arbatli & Canbolat, 2018). Erdogan has become synonymous with the identity and functioning of Turkey as a nation, representing not just its political institutions but also its economic and social fabric (Yilmaz & Bashirov, 2018). By centralising his power and limiting institutional checks and balances, Erdogan has cemented his authority at the expense of the separation of powers (Human Rights Watch, 2021).
Furthermore, Erdogan’s approach to democracy emphasises the significance of elections and the majority vote. Once a majority is secured, he claims a mandate to govern for five years. This interpretation of democracy has been criticised as majoritarianism, leaving little respect for minorities and their rights (Kubicek, 2016). This way, the electoral victory grants legitimacy to what essentially resembles an autocratic system (Kubicek, 2016). In the same vein, the AKP has appropriated the concept of ‘national will’ (Bilgiç, 2018). While the national will traditionally represents the collective choices and aspirations of the citizens, the AKP uses it to consolidate power and suppress dissenting voices by implementing anti-democratic measures in the name of the national will. These measures erode the rule of law and marginalise dissenting views (Soyaltin-Colella, 2022).
Lastly, doubts have been raised about the fairness and transparency of Turkish elections, with allegations of voter manipulation and restrictions on political competition (Coskun, 2022). Previously, it was claimed that Erdogan used media sanctions and the intimidation of his opponents to manipulate the 2018 election results in his favour (Esen & Yardimci-Geyikçi, 2020). The 2023 elections saw similar doubts regarding the fairness of the electoral process, further undermining Turkey’s democratic credibility (Ünlühisarcikli, 2023).
Altogether, the original Turkish model an aspiring secular democracy with a constitution that safeguards civil liberties has transformed into a considerably less democratic system. With Erdogan at the steering wheel, national unity and the majority’s vote have taken precedence over minority rights and an equal voice for the opposition.
Case Study 2: Thailand
While Turkey’s recent elections highlight the continued evolution of democracy, TSD’s legitimacy has been at the centre of this year’s elections. The victory of the Move Forward Party (MFP) as opposed to the United Thai Nation Party of incumbent Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha illustrates the Thai people's demand for a more liberal democratic system. The election happened against the backdrop of the 2020-21 popular protest, which opposed the current role of the monarchy in politics, the lèse-majesté law and the military government’s rule (Phaholtap & Streckfuss, 2020). The Kingdom of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, was ruled by an absolute monarchy until a military-civilian coup in 1932 established a constitutional monarchy with a prime minister as head of government. The end of absolute rule unravelled an ongoing political struggle about the roles of the monarchy, state, religion and nation within the Thai political regime (Kitirianglarp, 2010). Thailand’s political system has shifted between competitive democracy, military rule and civilian quasi-democracy over this past decade (Reilly, 2013, p. 159).
Thailand’s political development from 1991 until today is riddled with interventions by the military to uphold TSD and wield royal nationalism. A priority of the Ministry of Defence is “upholding and protecting the monarchy [for it to] strongly and sustainably serves as a strong unifying institution at the centre of the people’s hearts and minds (see MOD Thailand, 2022, p. 15). The ties between the military and monarchy enable them to monopolise political space and “hold veto power over the effective power of popularly elected representatives” (Chambers & Waitoolkiat, 2016, p. 6).
In contrast, the MFP stood for the reform of the military and the lèse-majesté law, which penalises the king's critics with up to 15 years of imprisonment. The MFP is a successor of the Future Forward Party, which won the third strongest position in the 2019 election and was later dissolved in 2020. The dissolution and political ban of high ranking party figures contributed to a growing discontent with the military government (Kurlantzick, 2020). The 2020/21 democratic protest movement also criticised the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and the monarchy’s political power .
The 2023 elections saw a landslide win for the opposition parties, where the leading MFP prepared a coalition agreement alongside seven other parties, holding 314 of 750 seats in Thailand’s parliament. For MFP’s Pita Limjaroenrat to become the next prime minister, 63 votes from either the House of Representatives or the military-appointed Senate are needed (Al Jazeera, 2023).
Still, Thailand still faces systemic hurdles in breaking down the structures and institutions built on its foundation. The constitutional set-up is still tilted towards the military regime as Senate members are military-appointed and critics of the monarchy can be prosecuted. Furthermore, political know-how on electoral law allows for the ban or dissolution of opposition parties and executives. Pita Limjareonrat currently faces a possible ban from politics for holding shares of a de-listed media company (Walker, 2023). Such a process would require substantial constitutional amendments and a re-imagining of the essence of Thainess.
The elections in Turkey and Thailand were highly anticipated events. Both states attempted to legitimise a seemingly more culturally adapted version of democracy. While Erdogan wielded the image of a majoritarian national will to justify his ‘democratic’ conduct, Thai leaders rely on national identity and the idea of the monarchy as inseparable to democratic rule. In the runup, two main blocs either opposed or supported their respective democratic interpretations crystallised as main antagonists. For Turkey, support for Erdogan’s vision of democracy will continue to consolidate his power and marginalise minority and opposition voices. Thailand, however, is experiencing a popular rejection of the former system of TSD, which had backed military rule, unchecked monarchical power and the repression of pro-democracy protests. How the development of Turkey’s and Thailand’s versions of democracy will unfold continues to be central to understanding the future of their political development.
This article represents the views of contributors to STEAR's online digital publication, and not those of STEAR, which takes no institutional positions.
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