Thais on the brink of authoritarianism and democracy: The Nazi Effect

This column highlights the fact that Thais brought up as children under authoritarian regimes are more likely to reflect authoritarian values – the ‘Nazi effect’, which turns children into Right-Wing Authoritarians. The result is that Thailand is a ‘swing state’ between democracy and authoritarianism, making it a crucial battlefield for values in Southeast Asia.

The column presents a condensed overview, with some commentary, of Asia Struggles with Democracy: Evidence from Indonesia, Korea and Thailand, by Dr. Giovanna Maria Dora Dore (2016), essential reading for anyone interested in the social psychology of authoritarianism and democracy in Thailand. The column excises and condenses all the material on Thailand, but you should read the book yourself, especially if you want the comparative approach. In brief, Dore finds little support for the ‘third democratic wave’ in Thailand, likely because the country has been fundamentally authoritarian for decades and because it is surrounded by other authoritarian countries.

Dore examined surveys by the John Hopkins University to understand public opinion regarding democracy as well as the processes of day-to-day democratization, in order to understand Thailand’s lack of commitment to democratization and the progress made in Indonesia and Korea.

Based on data obtained via two SAIS surveys by the John Hopkins University, one administered at the capital level in 2000 and another nationally in 2011, democracy as a concept appears reasonably well understood and was favorably received by Thais, at least in 2011, but many are not fully committed to it. Fundamentally,

At one level, democracy represents a clear set of political values to which citizens aspire. At another level, however, democracy refers to a political regime-in-practice that citizens might or might not want as the system by which their countries are governed, thus revealing a significant gulf between these two levels of democratic support at the mass level. Moreover, authoritarian affective support emerges as appealing as, and at times stronger than, democratic affective support in spite of their citizens’ positive views of democracy.

In the 2011 SAIS Survey, which is broadly consistent with 2006 World Values Survey data, 79% of Thais do seem to consider a democratic political system to be ‘good’, yet those same Thais also saw non-democratic regimes to be ‘good’, with 62% thinking a dictatorship was ‘good’, 55% believing a technocracy was ‘good’, and 43% believing military rule was ‘good’. Thus, there is still strong attachment on the part of Thais to a variety of authoritarian forms of government, implying democracy is certainly not the only ‘game in town’ in Thailand.

This must affect democratic consolidation in Thailand and the perpetuation of authoritarian ideology. In fact, 36% of Thais demonstrate strong authoritarian attitudes, 20% demonstrate borderline authoritarian attitudes, 26% demonstrate borderline democratic attitudes, and only 12% demonstrate strong democratic attitudes. Moreover, over 45% of Thais concurrently appreciate both authoritarian and democratic systems, representing a large number of people who could be persuaded either way. These Thais, who support democratic principles but not necessarily democratic regimes, could easily be leveraged by authoritarian rulers to work against democratic consolidation.

Further, a comparison of the SAIS 2001 and 2011 surveys indicates that citizens of Bangkok have become more authoritarian in their attitudes, with 53% demonstrating authoritarianism in 2001 and 64% in 2011, while 59% demonstrated democratic attitudes in 2001 and only 28% in 2011. In fact, Thais may be highly cynical politically, with respondents who consider elections as “an opportunity for patronage” being five times more likely to demonstrate authoritarian affective support, while those who perceive elections as “an opportunity for democratic participation” are 1.3 times more likely to demonstrate authoritarian affective support. Also, Thai economic pessimists are 3.2 times more likely to demonstrate strong authoritarian affective support, and those in Bangkok also show a higher likelihood of demonstrating authoritarian affective support. In contrast, rural Thais, more likely to be from ethnic minorities, are two times more likely to demonstrate democratic affective support.

In evaluating democracy in practice, then, many Thais are readily swayed against it, influenced by a checkered history consisting of cyclical coups and constitutions, with three Thais preferring some form of authoritarian regime for every Thai in favor of a democratic regime. In fact, while support for ‘traditional’ Thai values such as paternalism may encourage recurring expressions of authoritarianism, Thais show an apparently complex (if cynical) understanding of what democracy is precisely because of their checkered history of various regime types. For instance, in the 2011 SAIS Survey, 32% of Thais believed political parties were most in need of reform, followed by 16% believing it was the premiership and 11% the status quo, with 22% not answering.

This attitude is possibly a result of a ‘civic fatigue’ due to coups and political instability, including a “party system that tends to gravitate toward big parties vulnerable to personality dominance, promotion of short-term interests, lack of significant ideological distinction or policy platforms, high fragmentation, strong factionalization and pronounced regionalization”. Dore also relates that the emphasis on reforming the premiership might reflect personal and electoral authoritarianism.

Unfortunately, membership of civil society organizations seems to negatively affect what Dore terms ‘democratic cognitive skills,’ such as the ability to define democracy. This may be because members of CSOs are more likely to “be traditional advisors, belong to the upper and middle class, live in Bangkok and be well educated,” explaining somewhat the Bangkok middle class’s support for the ‘authoritarian turn’ since 2006.

Overall, Thai citizens’ conceptions of democracy in Thailand tend to be simplistic and unidimensional (approximately 65%), mainly focusing on associating democracy with political liberties in the form of democratic institutions and political processes (57%), followed by civil liberties (27%), rights (5%), and on developing the economy and private property (1%). This focus on process over substance, such as human rights, may reflect Thailand’s decades-long cyclical history of coups and constitutions underlying a “permanent state of democratic transition” and lack of democratic consolidation since its move to a constitutional monarchy in 1932 .

Consequently, 57% of Thais merely see democracy in simply procedural terms, though 52% see elections as a real opportunity for democratic participation. However, 37% see them merely as an ‘opportunity for patronage’ and 18% see them as a ‘waste of time’. In total, 63% of Thais appear to be stating that democratic procedures like elections are important but that they are broken or that, despite high voting turnout, voter participation is merely a ritual nod to authority rather than an opportunity for an individual to influence government policy.

The socialization of citizens is crucial. Essentially, the “more a person experiences democracy, the greater the probability that he/she will affectively support democracy as a political system”, or, more specifically,

support for the regime is initially shaped by early socialization and then evolves continuously throughout adult life as initial beliefs are reinforced or challenged by later experiences. In so far as recent results reinforce early socialization, political values will be relatively stable, but in so far as there are major changes or shocks in the performance of government, attitudes will change considerably.

The main components of the context are “the number of years a country has been a democracy; the predominant values in a country; and the quality of the democratic system”.

The consequences for Thailand are disturbing, as Thailand in the post-WWII has had fewer years as a democracy than under authoritarian regimes. In addition, Thai ‘official’ values – the 12 Core Values of Thai People – embody ultra nationalist political ideology, and in their being mandated in all school, via chants, etc., top-down Right-Wing Authoritarianism. Moreover, the German experience with the Nazis shows that citizens of authoritarian regimes may remain wedded to the political values and systems of authoritarianism even after years of democracy, especially children brought up in the regimes. Essentially, as Dore puts it,

The cumulative effect of socialization of non-democratic values might make it difficult for citizens to re-orient themselves toward democratic values, especially toward the values of liberalism and pluralism that generally figure prominently in democratic regimes. The more strongly people adhere to values typical of the pre-democratic period, the more cautious they are likely to be about embracing democracy as the preferred form of government for their countries.

Nevertheless, her somewhat optimistic conclusion is that in Thailand, “there seem[s] to be a tacit consensus that, with all of its imperfections, democracy remains the best way forward” despite Thais’ incoherent cognitive and affective support for democratic principles and regimes.

To conclude, as Dore states, “Thailand’s “stop-and-go” process toward finding a legitimate form of government, with 18 constitutions and 18 coups since 1932, remains without precedent in the annals of democracy.” This work goes some way to explaining why in terms of the opinions and thought processes of Thai citizens. At stake is the minds of Thai children, and whether they value civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights for all in an internationalist milieu, or whether they become submissive conventionalists who are taught to regard as social ‘deviants’ LBGTQs, ethnic minorities and foreigners, for example as in the fascist-era Second and Third Thai Cultural Mandates.