Thailand is mourning its beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last week after 70 years on the throne. During his long reign, Thailand shifted from a poor agricultural economy to a prosperous upper-middle-income country. The king’s greatest achievement, though, was to create a unique form of political legitimacy that helped Thailand weather rapid changes in a turbulent region.
Here’s why legitimacy is the most important foundation for any political system. It gives an answer to the question: “What right does the state have to rule, and why are citizens obliged to obey it?”
If the people consider a system legitimate, the country is more likely to remain stable even if the government is ineffective or unpopular. But if large numbers reject the government’s right to rule in principle, disorder or civil war may follow. (This is what makes Donald Trump’s claim that the system is “rigged” so dangerous.)
Alternatives to “rule by the people”
Modernization creates educated and questioning publics that are able to organize themselves and assert their interests. They ask more insistently why those who govern them are in power. One answer — the modern democratic one — is that legitimate rule is “rule by the people.” We are obliged to obey the government because we ourselves chose it in free and fair elections.
Authoritarian governments around the globe have had to respond to this challenge. Many have pretended to be democratic, going through the motions of elections manipulated to ensure they remain in power. Others have appealed to the past (by ruling in the name of tradition), to the future (by building an ideal, usually communist, society), or to eternity (by ruling in the name of God). A few charismatic leaders have been able to inspire by virtue of their personal qualities.
But all these solutions have limitations. Appeals to the past become less compelling as societies modernize; communism has proved to be a god that failed; God himself is now invoked to justify rule only in parts of the Islamic world; and charisma is a rare commodity that attaches to individuals, not entire systems.
Thailand’s unique solution
Thailand found a unique solution: a revered monarchy that combines several sources of legitimacy — tradition, divinity and charisma — while accommodating rapid economic growth and fitful democratization. These different sources of legitimacy together created a role with enormous moral authority far beyond its formal constitutional powers.
The origins were not auspicious. When the young Bhumibol unexpectedly ascended to the throne in tragic circumstances in 1946, the monarchy was at a low ebb. After the abdication of King Prajadhipok in 1935, no king had lived in Thailand for a decade. In the aftermath of World War II, Thailand’s powerful military wanted a usable but merely symbolic monarchy to burnish its rule.
But by working tirelessly for the most deprived regions, and by leading a modest and exemplary personal life, the young king gradually built up a deep popular respect and broadly based loyalty that grew into a source of power in its own right.
This was much more than usable legitimacy. The king’s words and actions — critical of corruption, committed to the poor — were an implicit rebuke to the greed of military and business elites. The king’s call for a “sufficiency economy” after the 1997 financial crisis, for example, set out a middle way for meeting basic needs through balanced development in response to the manias of hyper-globalization.
The power to rule quietly
Most remarkable of all, at crucial moments, this moral force could prevail over the men with guns. The most dramatic example was the king’s intervention in the Black May crisis of 1992. In the midst of violent street confrontations in Bangkok, the king summoned Prime Minister Suchinda Kraprayoon and opposition leader Chamlong Srimuang to admonish them, defusing the crisis and prompting Suchinda’s resignation.
No other country has seen such a mixing of the “dignified” and “efficient” parts of its constitution. The “bicycle monarchs” of Western Europe, in contrast, are figureheads who may be admired but wield no power. Where powerful figures do exert informal influence, they are ex-leaders enjoying a political afterlife, as in Singapore. King Bhumibol managed to build a powerful role by force of example rather than by force itself.
For political scientists, classifying the Thai political order has long proved difficult — above all because the king’s unique role defies orthodox interpretation. The deeply personal, even enchanted, reverence for the Thai king and his role in the country are alien to Western ways of understanding politics. The ordinary focus on interests and institutions has little place for a charisma of goodness, tradition and semi-divinity that can wield real political power.
Paradoxically, King Bhumibol during his long reign presided over the highest rate of constitutional turnover in the world, but in a deeper sense it helped preserve stability. In a region beset by turmoil, Thailand avoided the grim military rule of Burma, the conflict and genocide of Indochina, and the episodes of extreme bloodshed of Indonesia. Thailand’s unique form of monarchical legitimacy helped it navigate the dangers of the Cold War and the road to modernity with less upheaval than most of its neighbors.
The key question now is how Thailand will sustain and adapt this system of government after the passing of the revered king who built it.
Nigel Gould-Davies teaches at Mahidol University International College in Thailand and is an associate fellow of Chatham House.