Thailand History

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Former Prime Minister (1975-76) Kukrit Pramoj
Courtesy Royal Thai Embassy

In the late 1980s, the Thai political party system continued to evolve, albeit spasmodically. It was at a delicate stage of transition from its past status as an adjunct to the bureaucratic establishment to a more substantial role as a channel for popular representation and a provider of top political executives.

The concept of party politics dated back to the early 1930s, but its impact was generally insignificant, having been overshadowed by the military-bureaucratic elite. The struggle for power was nearly always settled by coup, and the pluralistic demands of the society were accommodated through either bureaucratic channels or patron-client connections. For decades political parties had an uncertain status. When they existed, they did so at the sufferance of generals, who abolished or revived them at will. Parties were unable to maintain continuity, nor could they develop a mass base. Part of the problem was the bad image of partisan politics, which the politicians brought on themselves through their unscrupulous pursuit of self-interest.

Party politics received a major impetus from the student uprising of October 1973 (see Thailand in Transition , ch. 1). Forty-two parties participated in the 1975 parliamentary election, and thirty-nine participated the following year. The freewheeling partisan politics during the so-called democratic period of 1973-76 ended in the coup of October 1976. Kriangsak, the army commander in chief, appointed a civilian-led government, but the Thanin Kraivichien regime turned out to be overly repressive and was overthrown in 1977. Assuming the office of prime minister himself, Kriangsak permitted the resumption of party politics banned by Thanin. Of the 39 parties that took part in the April 1979 election, 7 parties captured about 70 percent of the 301 contested seats.

As a result of the confusion stemming from the proliferation of minor parties, a new political parties act was passed in July 1981. The act, which became effective in 1983, specified that to participate in an election, a party must have a minimum of 5,000 members spread throughout the country’s four geographical regions. In each region, at least five provinces must have members, the minimum per province being fifty. The membership requirement was designed to foster the development of mass-based parties catering to broad national interests rather than narrow, sectional interests. Another provision of the act stipulated that a party must put up candidates for at least half the total lower house seats, or 174 seats. As a result, in the 1983 and 1986 elections, the number of participating parties was reduced to fourteen and sixteen, respectively. In order to satisfy the legal requirements, some parties fielded candidates recruited from among recent college graduates.

In the 1980s, the country’s multiparty system continued to suffer from traditional long-standing problems. These included organizational frailty and lack of discipline, endemic factionalism, the emphasis on personalities over issues, and the politicians’ penchant for vote-buying and influence-peddling. Parties were formed, as before, by well-known or wealthy individuals to promote their own personal, familial, parochial, or regional interests. Observers expressed concern that failure to improve the party system could result in a return to authoritarian military rule.

The perception that political parties and politicians were unworthy of trust was widespread in 1987. However, a coup was ruled out by Chaovalit, the new army commander in chief, even though he publicly castigated politicians as venal and hypocritical. In February he asserted that political parties, the Constitution, and elections alone would not make for a genuine democracy in Thailand, where, he argued, the party system and elections were controlled by a wealthy few who used the trappings of democracy for their own benefit. Appearing before a parliamentary committee in April 1987, Chaovalit maintained that to build a real Thai-style democracy with the king as head of state, the ever-widening income disparity must be narrowed first and that at the same time political parties and all government entities including the military "must join hands and walk ahead together."

The major Thai parties, which Chaovalit had criticized, were mostly right-of-center. Their numerical representation in the House of Representatives varied considerably from one election to another. Of the four ruling coalition parties in 1987, the Democrat Party was considered to be somewhat liberal, despite its beginning in 1946 as a conservative, monarchist party. Seni Pramoj, prime minister in 1946 and again in 1976, led the party from its inception until 1979. In 1974 the party suffered major fragmentation and lost some key figures, including Kukrit, Seni’s brother, who formed the Social Action Party that year. In the 1979 election, the Democrats suffered a major setback but rebounded in 1983. Over the years, this party consistently opposed military involvement in politics and actively sought to broaden its base of support across all social segments and geographical regions. In recent years, particularly after July 1986, the Democrats were racked by internal strife. Their leader Bhichai Rattakul, deputy prime minister in Prem’s coalition, was reconfirmed in a factional showdown in January 1987. Afterward, retired Lieutenant Colonel Sanan Khachornprasart was named secretary general, in place of Veera Musikapong, whose faction had been backed by wealthy Bangkok businessman Chalermphan Srivikorn.

The Chart Thai Party, sometimes called the "generals’ party," was founded in 1974 by a group of retired generals and was led until July 1986 by Pramarn Adireksan, retired major general and former president of the Association of Thai Industries and the Thai Textile Association. Aggressively anticommunist, Chart Thai was backed by a number of prominent industrialists. After the July 1986 election, it was led by retired General Chatichai Choonhaven, whose relationship with Prem was friendly.

The Social Action Party, a 1974 offshoot of the Democrat Party, was led by Thai statesman Kukrit Pramoj until he stepped down in December 1985. The party was led thereafter by the former deputy party leader and minister of foreign affairs, Siddhi Savetsila, a retired air chief marshal. More than any other party, the Social Action Party was identified with a free enterprise economy. In the 1986 election, the party suffered a severe loss, brought on in no small part by its own internal strife. In May 1986, a splinter faction led by seventy-four-year- old Boontheng Thongsawasdi formed the United Democracy Party with financial support from big business--amid a spate of rumors that General Arthit was also among the party’s behind-the scenes backers. In the July 1986 election and afterward, the United Democracy Party was outspokenly critical of the Prem administration.

The Rassadorn Party, the fourth member of the ruling coalition, was formed only a few months before the July 1986 election; until May 1986 it was known as the National Union (Sahachat) Party. Its leader was Thienchai Sirisamphan, retired deputy army commander in chief. Rassadorn came to be known as a pak taharn (military party) because its key party posts were held by retired generals. Its entry into partisan politics was welcomed by many for providing a constructive channel for military involvement in parliamentary government.

The exclusion of the United Democracy Party from the fifth coalition government was predictable in light of its anti-Prem stance. However, it probably came as a surprise to Samak Sundaravej, leader of the Prachakorn Thai Party formed in 1978, that his right-wing and monarchist group was not invited to join the coalition. Before the election, master orator Samak stated that the new postelection government should continue its strong military ties and should once again be led by outgoing Prem. In so doing, he rejected the suggestion that Kukrit Pramoj, who had retired from party politics altogether in May 1986, should head the new postelection regime.

The Ruam Thai Party and the Community Action Party, both formed in 1986, were also among the seven parties supporting Prem for continued premiership; but they, too, were left out of the coalition. The leader of the Ruam Thai Party, Narong Wongwan, was a former member of the Social Action Party and outgoing minister of agriculture and cooperatives. The Community Action Party was led by its founder Boonchu Rojanasathien, one-time deputy prime minister in charge of economic affairs, ex-deputy leader of the Social Action Party, and former president of the Bangkok Bank.

The remaining seven parties with one or more elected House of Representatives members formed the "Group of Nineteen," so named because of their combined total of nineteen members. These parties agreed in August 1986 to join with other noncoalition parties to form a united front in an attempt to ensure efficient and systematic monitoring of the government. In a crucial showdown over a no-confidence motion against the Prem government in April 1987, however, the opposition bloc suffered a major political embarrassment because of the last-minute defection from the censure debate by fifteen of its members. Boonchu, chief strategist of the five-member opposition leadership team, expelled five members from his Community Action Party for their action.

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