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Populism in Thailand and Southeast Asia, 1 of 2

by Kirk Hawkins and Joel Sawat Selway

Source: World Economic Forum. Creative Commons License.

As part of the Global Populism Dataset, Kirk Hawkins and Joel Selway coded speeches in the first and second terms of Thaksin Shinawatra. In an earlier article, we compared Thaksin to other global leaders concluding that Thaksin was not very populist in his first term, and a moderate populist in his second term, similar to Berlusconi of Italy and Erdogan of Turkey’s 3rd term.

In this post, we present scores from two new leaders in Thailand, Yingluck and Prayuth. These data show that Thailand’s level of populism is low. Populist rhetoric is simply not used much in Thai politics. We suggest some possible reasons—reliant on future, more in-depth research for testing. In a separate post, we compare Thailand’s level of populism to other leaders in Southeast Asia.

To measure the populism of Thai prime ministers, we employ an ideational definition of populism, which has less to do with party organization or ideological leanings, and more to do with the underlying worldview or rhetoric of a leader. Specifically, a populist is one who claims to represent the will of the people and pits him- or herself against an elite conspiring to subvert the people’s will.

The Global Populism Dataset uses content analysis of four categories of speeches—campaign, ribbon-cutting, international, and famous—to assess the extent to which leaders’ rhetoric fits the ideational definition of populism. Two coders (almost always native speakers) read each speech independently and then meet with one of the principal investigators (for Southeast Asia this was either Kirk Hawkins or Joel Selway) to discuss differences. The final scores are then averaged, and those four scores are averaged for the final populism score. Past analysis has demonstrated high inter-coder reliability. For more details on the methodology, see our original paper on Thaksin.

We analyze the last three leaders of Thailand, stretching back two decades: the first three years of Prayuth’s leadership following the May 2014 coup, Yingluck’s term in office following the 2011 elections, and Thaksin’s two terms in office. What do we find? Table 1 shows the scores for each type of speech and the final scores in the far-right column. The scale runs from 0 (no populism) to 2 (highly populist).

Table 1. Populism of Thai leaders, 2001-2017

Overall, levels of populism in Thailand are low. Despite the appeals to lower-income voters by the Pheu Thai party (called Thai Rak Thai during Thaksin’s terms in office), we do not see the type of language associated with populism. There is little talk of a conspiring elite, of painting this elite as evil, or of depicting politics in Manichean (black and white) terms. Thaksin’s first term in office is no more populist than Yingluck’s. And as you can see from the speech type, this is fairly consistent across audiences and contexts. We do see a spike in populism rhetoric in Thaksin’s second term, which shows up as moderately populist on our 0-2 scale. However, Thaksin’s claims of an elite conspiring to undermine the democratic will of the people were not unfounded given that Thaksin’s second term was ended by an elite-led coup. When the same party ran for office in 2011, their party leader, Yingluck, did not use populist rhetoric.

Neither do we see populist rhetoric used by the military leader after staging a coup. Perhaps this is to be expected, given that Prayuth arguably represents a conspiring elite. But his rhetoric entirely avoids using Manichean language in describing his political opponents.

The lack of populism is somewhat surprising, given its association with weak governance in other countries. In regions such as Eastern Europe and Latin America, where populism is generally high, widespread political corruption feeds a pervasive mistrust of politicians (Castanho Silva 2019; Hawkins, Jenne, and Silva forthcoming). Thailand ranks 104th out of 180 countries, along with the likes of the Philippines, El Salvador, and Algeria, scoring 36 out of a possible 100 (100 meaning no corruption).

One possible reason is the presence of traditional clientelistic ties. The very notion of populism—the will of the people—suggests a sufficient level of acceptance that all Thais are citizens and entitled to equality before the law. Thailand’s official nationalism, however, has for decades resisted this notion, thus maintaining hierarchical social structures that resist true popular rule (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities). While Thai citizens have adopted Thainess as a mass identity, it has not been fully accompanied by a core aspect of nationalism—horizontal comradeship. Thai society is still very hierarchical, from the village level all the way up to the national level.

Another possible reason is the fairly steady economic performance of Thailand. While political corruption is an important background condition, significant policy failures such as economic recession often serve as triggers of populist backlashes (Hawkins 2010). Unlike many Latin American counterparts, Thailand has not suffered from high levels of inflation. And although economic growth has stagnated since the 1997 Financial Crisis, the economy continues to perform at steady though moderate levels.

Regardless of the underlying causes, the effect is that the political elite have been able to avoid the need for populism as a bolster to their legitimacy. However, recent protest movements seem to have a strong populist rhetoric, suggesting that Thailand’s political culture may be shifting.



Anderson, Benedict. 1991. Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Verso books.

Castanho Silva, Bruno. 2019. “Populist Success: A Qualitative Comparative Analysis.” In The Ideational Approach to Populism: Concept, Theory, and Analysis, edited by Kirk A. Hawkins, Ryan Carlin, Levente Littvay, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. Extremism and Democracy. Abingdon: Routledge.

Hawkins, Kirk. 2010. Venezuela's chavismo and populism in comparative perspective. Cambridge University Press.

Hawkins, Kirk A., Erin K. Jenne, and Bruno Castanho Silva. forthcoming. “Mapping Populism and Nationalism in Leader Rhetoric across North America and Europe.” Studies in Comparative International Development.