Political Polarization, Transition, and Civil Society in Thailand and Malaysia

By Carlo Bonura | Comparative Political Theorist - SOAS - the University of London | Sep 22, 2015
Political Polarization, Transition, and Civil Society in Thailand and Malaysia
A political protest in Bangkok, 2015.

The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions. Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...


On June 17, 2015 Malaysia’s opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat, collapsed as a result of a growing ideological divide between two of the three main parties in the coalition, namely the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP).  The collapse is remarkable given Pakatan’s historic performance in Malaysia’s 2013 general election, in which it won 51 percent of the popular vote but still failed to take control of parliament. The coalition’s implosion was a product of growing intra-coalition tensions following the election. The vote at the PAS party conference in early June to sever ties with the DAP brought about Pakatan’s widely anticipated end. 

The ultimate failure of the coalition occurred in the context of a growing political crisis in Malaysian politics. After the initial limited success of the opposition in the 2008 general election, the ruling United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO) turned extensively toward racial and religious politics as a means of dividing the diverse opposition. As the largest party in parliament and the core party in the governing Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition, UMNO politicians and activists sought to challenge the growing political power of the opposition establishment and its strongholds in non-Malay Muslim urban constituencies in west Malaysia. The post-2013 crisis for Pakatan, however, is also a crisis for the BN as well. Non-Malay Muslim support for BN parties has drastically eroded since UMNO’s acceleration of the politics of religion and race. Never before has electoral politics in western Malaysia been so polarized across racial, religious, and urban-rural divides. 

This essay examines political polarization in the context of autocratic rule in Malaysia and Thailand. In this case, polarization describes a deep divide within a country’s politics that even autocratic measures or military rule cannot eliminate. This divide may be institutional, taking the form of electoral opposition, as in Malaysia’s “electoral” polarization. Thailand’s politics since 2001, by contrast, has experienced “systemic” polarization.  I argue that extended polarization distorts existing democratic processes and facilitates autocratic rule.  In general, polarized politics results in the consolidation of political oligarchies, the politicization of civil society, and extensive mass mobilizations. It culminates in recurring political crises that typically leave political elites and electorates further divided. Most importantly, polarization results in the creation of new forms of political enmity. Examining these dynamics of political polarization will make clear the need to reconsider the concept of political transition.

Southeast Asia’s Two Polarized Polities

Both Malaysia and Thailand’s current polarizations began in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In 1998, then-Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad deposed his deputy and finance minister, Anwar Ibrahim, who would later be imprisoned on charges of corruption and sodomy. Mahathir’s move against Anwar quickly led to massive street protests and eventually to a constellation of opposition forces that would remain generally in place today (although its institutional political form would change over time).[1]

Reformasi, the protest movement that supported the cause of Anwar Ibrahim, quickly led to organized institutional cooperation across opposition parties and the emergence of credible opposition coalitions, including Pakatan Rakyat, which successfully contested elections in 2008 and 2013, winning multiple state assemblies in both and a majority of the popular vote in 2013.  The two coalitions formed after Reformasi (as well as the new coalition that could be formed before the end of this year) were never founded on ideological agreements across member parties, but rather on a thin commitment to electoral non-competitiveness. As such, institutionalized opposition (in the form of political parties) has never fully posed a political alternative to the autocratic developmentalism of the ruling BN coalition.  

Thailand’s deep political divide provides a stark contrast to Malaysia’s electoral polarization. The 1997 “people’s constitution” allowed for new forms of parliamentary and executive power, providing the political opening for the rise of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. Thaksin’s absolute majorities in parliament allowed for the creation of a new political establishment that has successfully rivaled Thailand’s royalist political establishment, which includes the monarchy, the military, the judiciary, the civil service, and the Democrat Party. Tensions between these two establishments have culminated in successive opposing mass mobilizations, two military coups against the governments of Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra (in 2006 and 2014, respectively), and political violence. 

The 2014 coup was carried out to bring an end to Thaksin’s capacity to dominate Thai parliamentary politics (or what I call “de-Thaksinification”), while simultaneously positioning the current military leadership under the command of Prayut Chan-o-cha to manage a future royal succession. The 2006 coup failed in its attempt to reorder Thailand’s politics by introducing the 2007 constitution, with its enhanced powers of the judiciary and partially-appointed Senate. As such, the 2014 coup began the process of de-Thaksinification anew. In contrast to Malaysia’s coalitional standoff, the recent coup in Thailand poses the problem of eliminating well-established political influence and widely-held political loyalty. Given the military’s systematic crackdown on dissent and legal pursuit of bans for Thaksin-aligned politicians, the end point of this process will involve some kind of eradication rather than reconciliation.  

The formation of political enmity, which is critical to this move away from reconciliation, has been the hallmark of political polarization. In Thailand by the mid-2000s, new forms of enmity emerged between supporters of the deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Thailand’s pro-royalist establishment.  This enmity developed new aesthetic codings through the use of color to indicate political loyalties (red and yellow being the most prominent). In Malaysia, since 2008 the creation of enmity has involved the activation of new forms of Malay nationalism and Islamist activism, as well as a revival of Malay royalism. Durable enmity is a critical component in the anticipation and provocation of political crisis and has consistently been mobilized by elites on both sides in Thailand and Malaysia.

Prolonged Political Crisis Rather than Transition 

Political polarizations challenge the utility of the concept of transition, whether transition is understood as a progressive move toward liberal democracy or a regressive move toward authoritarianism. An analysis of durable polarizations, in which politics is starkly divided between two political alternatives (whether coalitions or establishments) for long periods of time, requires a move away from the temporal logic of the notion of transition. For analytical purposes, in this case, liberal democracy no longer serves as the telos of political development. Rather, the duration of these polarizations raise new questions regarding the stability of a political divide: what are the political languages necessary for such stability, how are elites coalesced on each side of a divide, what are the material interests involved in the maintenance of such divides, and what recurring role do mass mobilizations play in this kind of politics? 

In both Malaysia and Thailand, the polarization of politics has resulted in new forms of political and civil associations and has broadened participation in politics.

Focusing on a discrete period of polarization, however, should not lead to the presumption that politics is static or necessarily “regressive.” In both Malaysia and Thailand, the polarization of politics has resulted in new forms of political and civil associations and has broadened participation in politics. The political polarizations described here have led to complex political conditions in that new political energies and discourses are emerging simultaneously with new autocratic dynamics that distort democratic practice and consolidate power in new personalities and elites. The result is a vacillation of polarized politics characterized by chronic political crisis, in which the tensions between competing political establishments are not resolved. 

Civil Society in Polarized Politics

Civil society is actively reshaped by overarching political polarizations, as the political space to engage in activism that attempts to imagine political positions beyond opposing establishments becomes increasingly limited. Moreover, civil society activists and organizations have participated widely in regular mass mobilizations on both sides of each divide. Under such conditions, civil society cannot be understood as a uniform political force persistently in opposition to autocratic rule or liberal in its orientation.[2] This is especially the case in Thailand, where civil society has been explicitly politicized, potentially elitist in nature, or gradually co-opted by the state.[3] In Malaysia as well, a new wave of conservative Muslim NGOs and Malay nationalist organizations play a “para-political” role in actively supporting state and UMNO political agendas.[4]

In general, the relationship between civil society and liberalism itself is uncertain under deeply divided politics. For certain elements of civil society liberalism (such as Thai royal liberalism[5]) may be articulated simultaneously with forms of elitism. In other cases, liberalism is politicized as a foreign element synonymous with religious relativism as characterized, for instance, by Islamist activists in Malaysia. These conceptualizations of liberalism may exhaust the possibility of political appeals that could, under other circumstances, be articulated through liberal vocabularies. 

Polarization and Democratic Elections

What these two examples demonstrate clearly is that institutional democratic processes, such as open elections, have deepened political polarization rather than provided civil resolution. In Thailand in particular, the existing political divide has survived successive democratic elections as well as military interventions. The role that democratic elections play in sustaining polarized politics, therefore, is complex.

Since 1997 elections in Thailand and Malaysia have been important in structuring political contestation. In Thailand military governments regularly return to open elections after periods of military rule. Electoral competition, however, has been critical in the emergence of new democratic forces in Thai politics. From 2001 onward new rural constituencies in the north and northeast have been central to Thai electoral politics. These voters, long marginal, are now critical to the political power of Thaksin-aligned political parties.[6] By contrast, in Malaysia, a long line of regular, semi-open elections have served to regularly affirm the hegemony of UMNO’s 68-year rule.

Under the contemporary polarizing conditions in both Thailand and Malaysia, elections provide the means for the potential consolidation of existing establishments.

Under the contemporary polarizing conditions in both Thailand and Malaysia, elections provide the means for the potential consolidation of existing establishments. Whereas Thaksin’s electoral machine secured absolute majorities across four parliamentary elections, Pakatan Rakyat expanded its control of state assemblies and denied the BN the parliamentary supermajority necessary to change the constitution. Simultaneously, elections can become complex sites for extensive political interventions, resulting in mal-apportionment, partially appointed assemblies, party switching, candidacy disqualification, and political bans. Moreover, both the growth of parliamentary power and interventions into democratic practice can provide the basis for the extension of autocratic power.

Beyond elections themselves, claims to democracy also play an important role in Thai and Malaysian politics. In Malaysia, liberal democratic discourse tends to be an oppositional discourse. Opposition claims often focus on political influence in the judiciary, highly managed elections (including systematic  mal-apportionment), and sedition laws that obstruct democratization.

Democratic claims in Thai politics, however, are far more complicated. Claims are persistently made in the name of democracy across the Thai political spectrum. Electoral democracy has been most deeply supported by the parties, politicians, and activists aligned with Thaksin Shinawatra, especially the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, or “Red Shirts”). Royal liberals, some of whom have been active in the constitutional drafting process currently underway in Thailand, have limited notions of the place of democracy in modern Thai politics. Royalist politics, however, is more generally associated with an elitist rejection of democracy that is tied to its support for recurring military intervention as a means of political reform.

Conclusion: Durable Polarizations

The politics of crisis within the context of longstanding polarizations will continue to structure politics in Thailand and Malaysia in the foreseeable future.  Malaysia is now entering a phase of generalized political crisis. Prime Minister Najib’s rapidly worsening 1MDB corruption scandal is set against the backdrop of the gradual collapse of the ruling BN coalition. Efforts to reassemble Pakatan Rakyat with the inclusion of the PAS-splinter New Hope Movement will, in fact, leave the new opposition coalition politically weaker.

The health of relatively new non-institutional forms of mass mobilization in the form of electoral reform, anti-corruption, and environmental movements are critical at this moment. These represent new forms of democratic practice beyond the cul-de-sac of the politics of institutional political parties. The survival of the Bersih movement in particular after the collapse of Pakatan Rakyat demonstrates not only the failure of non-ideological opposition, but also the growing autonomy of mass movements and their leadership from the party-based opposition establishment.

In Thailand the recent coup will do nothing to reduce the deep polarization facing the country’s politics. The current efforts at de-Thaksinification will only exacerbate anxieties among Thaksin’s supporters and the UDD that they will be left out of politics at the end of military rule. The new constitution will most likely distort Thai politics to such an extent that future mass mobilizations in the wake of new elections will become even more severe than were witnessed at the start of 2014. Similarly, the military will not control how royal succession will affect the polarization of Thai politics even if it insists on remaining in power to control the succession itself.




[1] Meredith Weiss, Protest and Possibilities: Civil Society and Coalitions for Political Change in Malaysia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006).

[2] Erik Martinez Kuhonta and Aim Sinpeng, “Democratic Regression in Thailand: The Ambivalent Role of Civil Society and Political Institutions,” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 36, 3 (December 2014): 336.

[3] Eli Elinoff, “Unmaking Civil Society: Activist Schisms and Autonomous Politics in Thailand,” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs 36, 3 (December 2014).

[4] Clive Kessler, “Islam, the State & Desecularization: The Islamist Trajectory During the Badawi Years,” in Sharing the Nation: Faith, Difference, Power and the State 50 Years After Merdeka, Norani Othman et al., eds. (Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: Strategic Information and Research Development Center, 2008), 63.

[5] Michael Kelly Connors, Democracy and National Identity in Thailand (Copenhagen, Denmark: NIAS Press, 2007).

[6] Andrew Walker, Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2012).