For the sixth publication of the ADRN special working paper series, Dr. Thawilwadeee Bureekul, Ms. Ratchawadee Sangmahamad, and Ms. Nuchaprapar Moksart of the King Prajadhipok's Institute explore the populist phenomena in Thailand. According to the authors, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (in 2001) has been instrumental in establishing populism through policy within Thai politics since the adoption of the 1997 Constitution. Despite the military coups that ensued the Thaksin administration, policy populism continued to provide benefits to the poor and help maintain public trust in the government. However, the authors argue that this kind of populism calls for a "checks and balances by non-governmental organizations [...] to ensure accountability in the implementation process." Given that redistributive policies have the potential of fiscal mismanagement and corruption, they suggest that the "function of laws and regulations should be considered" and the new measures following the 2017 Constitution be strictly enforced.
Quotes from the Paper
Before the Asian 1997 financial crisis and the adoption of the 1997 Constitution, Thailand had endured a great number of fluctuations in its political development. The coming of the TRT party and Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001 paved the way for the establishment of new politics in Thailand. The Thaksin administration created a new form of political campaign under the implementation of populist policies to increase public trust in government and improve national well-being such as the thirty baht healthcare scheme, community village funds, agrarian debt relief, One Tambon One Product (OTOP), and so on.
Historically, academic definitions of populism have differed and people have often defined populism in loose terms referencing “people,” leaders who have the power of provocation (especially political leaders), and “catch-all politics.” In addition, the term has also been used as a label for new unclassified groups, which have often refused to refer to themselves as “populists.”
Context of Thailand
Populism has been employed in Thailand for many decades, but in the past covered only some aspects of political and economic activity, unlike the universal practice of the Thaksin Shinawatra administration. For example, monetary policy under Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj in 1975 helped people by providing a budget to develop livelihoods in local communities, but such moves were not widely regarded at the time as populist. More than twenty years later the 1997 constitution opened the door to public participation in the policy decision making process, and in 2001 the TRT party under Thaksin Shinawatra introduced a national populist agenda to attract Thai voters. The Thaksin political campaign promoted policies such as the thirty baht healthcare scheme, a community fund, an agrarian debt relief scheme, loans for education and more. This political strategy helped him win the election and represented a new kind of politics in Thailand, changing the landscape of the policy making process for all political parties.He used populist policies to alleviate poverty and help impoverished people gain access to social services. As a result of these policies, many people were satisfied with and supported the TRT and Thaksin.
Populism in Four Periods of Government
Populism in the Thaksin Shinawatra Period
Thaksin became the twenty-third Prime Minister of Thailand on February 17, 2001 and was in power until September 19, 2006. In 2006, his government was overthrown by a military coup d’état following street demonstrations and political conflict. Before forming the government in 2001, Thaksin was well known as a successful business-man. He used political marketing and policy strategy during his five years and 222 days in office, and together with his TRT party launched an array of policies to promote the rural economy and gain popular support from the people, Key examples include the thirty baht healthcare scheme, the agrarian debt relief scheme, and the one million baht village fund.
Populism in the Abhisit Vejjajiva Period
The Elderly Allowance was implemented under the Abhisit administration to promote income security for every elderly person in Thailand. People over the age of sixty receive an allowance starting at 600 baht every month for the rest of their lives, with the exception of civil servants, who benefit from a government pension. The allowance rises to a maximum of 1,000 baht a month according to age. In 2011, more than 3.5 million people registered for the elderly allowance, and approximately 6.75 million seniors have benefited from the policy.
Populism in the Yingluck Shinawatra Period
A first-time car buyer policy was implemented between September 16, 2011 and December 31, 2012 under Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration. The aim of the policy was to give low-income citizens an opportunity to buy a new car at a low tax rate. However, the beneficiaries of the first-time car buyer subsidy were not the poor. Instead, the upper income groups, or the Thai middle class, benefited most from the policy. This policy also provided an enormous benefit to automobile companies, which saw increased profits from selling their vehicles.
Populism in the General Prayuth Chan-ocha Period
General Prayut Chan-o-cha was the twenty-ninth Prime Minister of Thailand. His government began on August 30, 2014 under the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). His administration played an important role in stimulating the grass roots economy via the Civil State or pracharat project. The government also promoted the twenty-year strategic plan, which is the main project under the NCPO. The details of each of these policies are as follows.
Results of Policy Implementation
Populism has been the mechanism and approach to alleviating inequality and poverty in Thailand. After Thaksin implemented a populist approach, the public was satisfied with the benefits they received from the policies. Since Thaksin, some populist policies have been created and implemented response to public demand. Healthcare services have been extended to 48 million people, and the adoption of “citizenship rights” means that everyone in the country has equal access to social services and the same rights to welfare. Thus, a number of scholars agree that populism has resulted in an increased quality of life for the Thai people.
Positive and Negative Aspects of Populism
Positive Aspects of Populism
First, populism has transformed Thai politics from the old election culture of buying support to one of policy competition. Political parties increasingly use populist policies to gain public support and win election. Second, populism has encouraged greater checks on the actions of the government, both through popular movements and through the Parliament.Thirdly, people have become more interested in public policy, resulting in higher rates of voter turnout at elections. Many populist policies offer basic guarantees, e.g. the thirty baht healthcare scheme and accessibility to health care for all, but most of them are political tools as well. Lastly, populism can alleviate inequality, because it can lead to the promotion of aspects of social welfare such as health care, education, old age pensions, and allowances for poor people.
Criticism and Analysis
In a group discussion held by King Prajadhipok’s institute on December 12, 2018, experts and academic participants introduced five problems with populist policies. Mechanisms to avoid fiscal mismanagement in the policymaking process and critical recommendations to establish sustainable policies were also part of the group discussion.
Problems with Populist Policies in Thailand
Recommendations to Create Sustainable Policies
The Role of Political Parties and Policymakers
Political parties should understand the likelihood of successful policy implementation, emphasize the national interest, and be held responsible for the results and consequences of populist policies. Moreover, political parties should not merely emphasize political marketing; instead, all parties should provide opportunities to the public to participate in the policymaking process.
Conclusion and Recommendations
In conclusion, populism has been embedded in Thai society for almost two decades. Populism, or prachaniyom, has both positive and negative aspects. It is an approach that can provide benefits to the public, but absent regulation it can result in fiscal problems as well. Even though populism has increased public satisfaction with political parties and established a culture of policy competition, it has also shown that it can have impacts on social economic and politics. First, populist policies interact with the fiscal dimension, and thus policy budgets need to incorporate checks and balances by non-governmental organizations or monetary institutions to ensure accountability in the implementation process. There also needs to be an economic strategy to maintain policies in the long run. Sustainability is a major challenge for the government and the good management of economic mechanisms and economic growth is essential in order to sustain good populist policies in the future.
Thawilwadee Bureekul is the director of the Research and Development Office at King Prajadhipok’s Institute (KPI) where she is involved in the planning, management, implementation, and coordination of the Institute’s research projects. In addition to her role at KPI, Dr. Bureekul is a professor at several universities in Thailand, including the Asian Institute of Technology, Thammasat University, Burapha University, Mahidol University, and Silpakorn University. She succeeded in proposing “Gender Responsive Budgeting” in the Thai Constitution and she was granted the “Woman of the Year 2017” award as a result.
Ratchawadee Sangmahamad is a researcher assigned to the Research and Development Office of King Prajadhipok’s Institute. Her research includes citizenship, gender, and election studies. She has published books such as Value Culture and Thermometer of Democracy (with Thawilwadee Bureekul), Thai Citizens: Democratic Civic Education (with Thawilwadee Bureekul and Eugenie Mario), and many articles.
Nuchaprapar Moksart is a researcher assigned to the Research and Development Office of King Prajadhipok’s Institute. Her research includes social policy and political economy theory. She also writes on socioeconomic issues.