Thailand’s implications for Pakistan

There are obviously many massive differences between Thailand and Pakistan, but the recent Thai elections suggest some lessons relevant to the current military/government crackdown on Imran Khan’s PTI in Pakistan. I’m not personally a fan of Khan or his more extremely-online backers, all of whom vehemently swore up and down back in 2018 that he was not backed by the military; the more recent “regime change” stuff was similarly unpersuasive.

But that doesn’t mean a grim wave of state repression is somehow justified, much less that it will “work” as desired. The military going after the PTI – and the government mooting the possibility of banning it – is part of an old playbook in both Pakistan and other military-influenced polities. Dawn summarizes it here:

“Indeed, the government seems to realise its vulnerable position, which is why free rein is being given to the shadow state to deal with the challenge posed by the PTI. These elements have gone about this task with signature, ham-fisted violence.”

That can be effective if you don’t plan to have free-ish and fair-ish future elections or if you think the targeted party is a pure product of patronage and malleable electables. But if those conditions don’t apply, then you “solve” a short-term problem but without an answer to the long-term question of how to build political stability.

The Thai milpritary/monarchy exiled and sidelined various opponents over the last 20 years, but even after years of military rule that sought to lay the basis for a manageable political order (“The 2017 junta-initiated constitution with an appointed Senate was conceived as a tool by political elites to ensure their power, including over the popularly elected lower house”), the elections showed deep support for their opponents (“clear repudiation of the two military-aligned parties of the current government, and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led a coup that ousted an elected government in 2014. The governing coalition won only 15% of the seats”).

As Tamara Loos argues:

“Many new voters who grew up during the tumultuous 2000s and many older voters frustrated with the static invariability of Thai politics cast their ballots in May for orange: the blend of yellow and red adopted by Move Forward in its campaign. . ..

If Move Forward is unable to build a ruling coalition, other major parties could form a government in its stead, a development that would likely trigger protests, which the military could distort into a pretext to stage a coup. If Move Forward’s coalition tries to reform Article 112, the Election Commission could dissolve the party and its partners, which would also catalyze popular dissent, and the military could stage a coup. If a coalition government fails to broach discussion of Article 112, Thais may stage peaceful protests, which could then invite the military to stage a coup.  .. .

This distressing pattern persists in Thai politics: when events or protests threaten the power of the military-monarchical status quo, the military uses the disruption as an excuse to stage a coup, crack down on dissent, and eventually hold elections for a new government, which rules until its power is threatened anew. “

This means it’s not at all obvious to me what the endgame is in Pakistan. The PTI has plenty of peelable-away electables, leaders able to be pressured, and a complex electoral coalition that will prove vulnerable. But it’s also a representative of a meaningful portion of the Pakistani polity. Both things can be true at once. The PPP and PML-N are around even after past military crackdowns, the Awami League was still able to become a major player in Bangladeshi politics even after the 1975-1990 military interregnum, and the Thai opposition has found a new voice despite years of military management. If Myanmar’s military somehow stepped aside tomorrow, the NLD and other pre-2021 coup parties would still be key players.

Mass politics just aren’t easily malleable, which is why military regimes struggle so badly to build and maintain stable rule. The key question is thus whether and how this constituency will be incorporated; there is certainly the possibility that the PTI or something like it sweeps back to power in future elections, heralding another potential crisis.

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