Shenghua Zhang, Department of Politics and International Studies, SOAS, University of London
Populism involves the use of anti-establishment appeals and the symbolic production of social identities, which together construct an “us versus them,” or “the people versus the elite” divide in society. While many academic studies of populism in Thailand focus on the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra—the archetypal populist of this country—this paper moves on to the aftermath of populism and suggests that we may be witnessing a post-populist moment rendered by the recently politicized young Thais. It analyzes the political tensions in Thailand that escalated after the 2019 general election and were instantiated by a string of demonstrations, which culminated in August 2020, when a group of student protestors openly demanded reform of the monarchy.
Drawing on the author’s fieldwork data collected in Thailand during the 2019 election period, this paper argues that the recent protest movements signify a spontaneous attempt to challenge and redefine the political legitimacy of the Thai state. Such an attempt is mainly prompted by the novel social identity of the younger generation, which emerged from social media campaigning during the latest populist moment—the 2019 election period—and crystallized in the struggle against issues of injustice, such as the dissolution of the opposition Future Forward Party. These events reveal the transformative potential of populism. Therefore, instead of positing a simple dichotomy between populism and democracy, this paper suggests that the dynamics of populist politics are fundamentally complex and that, in the Thai context, populism could actually pave the way towards democratization.
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