I had just cancelled my flight to Bangkok, where I was due to attend a conference this coming weekend, when I learned that the Constitutional Court had issued a long-awaited decision disbanding the ruling party (the PPP). The decision had been widely anticipated, given the apparent violations of electoral law by the PPP. It assumed greater importance, however, because of the crisis perpetuated by anti-government protestors. With tacit support from the police, military and monarchy, they had occupied Bangkok’s airports, stranding hundreds of thousands of tourists and causing serious economic pain (not to mention the cancellation of my conference!)
There are two points of general interest illustrated by this affair. First, like many other countries, Thailand has experienced “judicialization” with the courts resolving major political issues. In a forthcoming article available here, I argue that Thailand’s constitutional order is just an extreme case of a general trend toward “post-political” constitutions, reflecting a distrust of politics and a faith that technocratic institutions, like courts, counter-corruption commissions and ombudsmen, can somehow resolve problems in a neutral manner.
Second, courts seem to respond to signals of public opinion in such circumstances. Had the protests been put down or been less enduring, the Court might have sided with the PPP and found the violations of law de minimis. Some years ago, the Court’s predecessor had essentially taken this approach with regard to the party associated with now-discredited premier Thaksin Shinawatra. This time, the Thai Constitutional Court said it had “no choice” but its decision can also be read as furthering its own institutional interest in remaining relevant in the light of great public pressure. The Court’s prestige has arguably been enhanced by the whole affair.
As a normative matter, this state of affairs leaves much to be desired. Don’t like the government? Simply organize a large scale protest, bring the government to a halt, and then accuse it of not providing leadership. If the protest is big enough, the courts will have no choice to side with you. The key, of course, is to have enough support that law enforcement takes your side. But technocratic institutions like courts, the military or police, are no substitute for political institutions. I suspect this is not the final round of Thailand’s political crisis, as the government party will emerge again in some reconstituted form.