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Prayuth's return as prime minister takes Thailand back to 1980s

Military still holds sway in a democracy that has yet to mature

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, seen casting his vote in the March general election, now leads what could be called a "pseudo-civilian" government.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- Thailand's general election was billed as a step toward democracy after five years of military rule, but the result -- former junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha's return as prime minister -- is in essence a step back to the "half-democratic" era of the 1980s.

In the years after the so-called Siamese revolution of 1932, the country's political system took the shape of a parliamentary democracy, but the military repeatedly used force to assert its will over the legislature and opposing political parties.

This finally changed in the 1980's, when the late Prem Tinsulanonda served as prime minister for eight years. Although he hailed from the military, Prem followed typical democratic procedures, reshuffling his cabinet and dissolving the parliament ahead of elections.

While Thailand still lacked a fully democratic system, the country enjoyed a moment of stable "half democracy" that supported rapid economic growth. The year 1988, when Prem stepped aside to make way for prime ministers chosen by the people, is considered the year Thailand democratized.

A new constitution adopted in 1997 stipulated that prime ministers must come from the lower house, to avoid interference by the military. However, when Thaksin Shinawatra took office as prime minister in 2001, his authoritarian style and money-powered politics sparked a strong backlash from conservatives. This opened up a wide political rift with Thaksin's supporters -- mainly rural farmers who had benefited from his generous handouts targeted at the poor.

While the pro-Thaksin camp repeatedly won elections, the divide continued to widen, leading to coups in 2006 and 2014 led by military-backed conservatives, as well as the dissolution of the pro-Thaksin party following questionable court orders.

Thai parliament members attend the vote that gave Prayuth another term as prime minister on June 5.   © Reuters

The new 2017 constitution states that the prime minister need not be elected to parliament. The new document also includes upper house senators -- who are appointed by the military -- in voting for the prime minister.

And so Thailand has returned to what can be called a pseudo-civilian government backed by the military -- just after Prem's death in May at the age of 98.

Political strife is common around the world. What makes Thailand stand out is how the country has repeatedly resorted to coups and protests to settle political confrontations, instead of elections and congressional debates -- the standard means of resolving disputes in democratic, parliamentary politics.

"Although having an election every four years indicates that Thailand has a democratic system, there seems to be very little understanding of the basic rule that if you lose [an election], you should admit defeat and step back," said Ikuo Iwasaki, a former professor at Japan's Takushoku University.

Similar conditions can be found in Indonesia, where eight people died in a violent protest after the opposition party refused to concede defeat in the election that gave President Joko Widodo a second term.

According to the World Bank's annual democracy ranking, Thailand fell to 161st from 80th over the past 20 years, while Indonesia moved up to 101st from 160th. Yet, despite trending in opposite directions, the two countries that present themselves as leaders among Southeast Asian nations still have underdeveloped democracies.

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