Despite its frequent military coups, Thai democracy was practically a textbook case of successful transition during the 1980s and 1990s. A so-called "semi-democracy" during 1980-88 gave way to a fully elected civilian leadership whose corrupt government laid the conditions for a putsch in February 1991. As the coup makers institutionalized their power through the political party and electoral systems, a popular uprising put the military back in the barracks in May 1992. Following an organic five-year constitution-drafting process, the promulgation of the reform-driven 1997 Constitution appeared to cross the threshold between transition and consolidation. But the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai party changed all that. The Thaksin regime was paradoxically corrupt and abusive of power on the one hand but delivered the goods from its populist platform through policy innovation on the other. Thaksin triumphed at the polls in 2001 and again, by a landslide, in 2005. In the same year, a Bangkok-based "yellow-shirt" movement campaigned against his graft and abuse, laying the groundwork for Thailand's latest putsch in September 2006. Thai politics has been murky and topsy-turvy since. Thaksin's opponents from the military, palace, Bangkok's middle class, royalist political parties, swathes of civil society, and the yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy are now in charge, fronted by Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and his Democrat Party-led coalition government. Yet this anti-Thaksin coalition is unable to put the lid on the pro-Thaksin "red shirts" as the remarkable reign of King Bhumibol Adulyadej enters its twilight. Thai democracy and monarchy are increasingly enmeshed. Its road ahead towards a workable constitutional monarchy that is consistent with democratic development will have much to say about the democratization in developing countries. It is a crucial case that could build or sap the momentum of democratization and democracy promotion elsewhere.
Dr. Thitinan Pongsudhirak is Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) and Associate Professor of International Political Economy at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He has authored a host of articles, books and book chapters on Thailand's politics, political economy, foreign policy, media and ASEAN and East Asian security and economic cooperation. He is frequently quoted and his op-eds have regularly appeared in international and local media. Dr. Thitinan has worked for The BBC World Service, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Independent Economic Analysis (IDEA) and consulting and research projects related to Thailand's macro-economy and politics. He received his B.A. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, M.A. from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Ph.D. from the London School of Economics where he won the United Kingdom's Lord Bryce Prize for Best Dissertation in Comparative and International Politics. Dr. Thitinan has lectured at a host of universities in Thailand and abroad, and is currently a visiting scholar with the FSI-Humanities Center and Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.