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Support For Democracy Part 1: Religiosity

by Joel Selway

Picture: Thailand Buddhist Monks

Source: pixabay

Our first few posts on ThaiDataPoints have been about institutional factors as Thailand prepares to return to democracy. In many ways, we have been making the assumption that if Thailand can get the instituions right we will not see many of the problems that have plagued the country over the past few years. But what if it goes deeper than that? What if some Thais are actually not individually supportive of democracy? And if not, what is contributing to this lack of support? In this first post in a series on individual support for democracy in Thailand, I investigate the issue of religiosity.

Religion has played a limited, but not unimportant, role in Thai politics over the past couple of decades. For example, the 1988 elections saw a contest between the Phalang Dharma Party, supported by the Santi Asoke movement, and the Prachakorn Party, supported by the conservative Parian Tham Association. The September 1992 elections were also cast in religious terms: Angels parties that had supported democracy during the military coup and Devils parties that implicitly or explicitly supported the coup.

But does personal religiosity matter in Thai politics, and how does it shape attitudes towards democracy? It has become almost trendy to investigate the relationship between religiosity and support for democracy across the Muslim world. The assumption is that more religious people are more likely to support fanatical political views including the importance of Shariah law over democracy. The evidence is decidedly mixed, by the way. But why has the same question not been asked of Buddhist-majority countries?


Table 1 shows that countries with a significant Buddhist population have a Freedom House (2014) average score of just 4.1 (1.0 is the best and 7.0 the worst). This is only slightly better than Muslim North Africa. Moreover, the two largest Muslim majority countries in Asia--Malaysia and Indonesia--have scores of 4.0 and 3.0 respectively, both better than the average of Buddhist-majority countries. Should we blame this poor democratic performance of Buddhist countries on lack of individual support for democracy?

Certainly, there appears at first blush to be few grounds for such an assertion in the first place. After all, Buddhism lacks a formal legal code and has no overtly political doctrine that immediately comes to mind. Religiosity should, from this point of view, have no effect on support for democracy (Hypothesis 1). Another possibility is that religious indifference, perhaps even rejection, of worldly things--a central doctrinal tenet of Buddhism--might also include politics. There may thus be active rejection of secular political systems that results from increased religiosity (Hypothesis 2). Others might argue, in contrast, that Buddhism's emphasis on the value of individual life might be particularly compatible with democracy (Hypothesis 3). Finally, a more complex, politically-shaped, influence of religiosity on support for democracy might arise from the politicization of religion of the sort described in the second paragraph of this blog. We thus might see a changing effect of religiosity on democracy over time and across groups and geographic space in Thailand (Hypothesis 4). But what do the data say?

Religiosity and Support for Democracy

Using data from the World Values Survey, I assess the effect of religiosity on support for democracy. The question on democracy is as follows:

How important is it for you to live in a country that is governed democratically? On this scale where 1 means it is “not at all important” and 10 means “absolutely important” what position would you choose?

Less than 1% of Thais think democracy is not at all important. In fact, just under 90% give a six or above for this question. Most Thais in 2013 (47.3%) said democracy is absolutely important, compared to only 28.7% in 2007. So, the initial impression is that Thais are more supportive than not of democracy. However, over a quarter of Thais in 2013 said that democracy is only of moderate importance. Although this is a slight decrease from 2007, where just over 30% said democracy was of moderate importance, we want to know what is driving these trends.

I cross this measure of support for democracy with a measure of religiosity. The exact question wording is:

Apart from weddings and funerals, about how often do you attend religious services these days?

In 2013, those who attend the most often (more than once a week) have the highest level of support for democracy (~53%), compared to the high forties for those who attend on special holidays or once a month, decreasing to the thirties for those who attend less frequently. There is a very clear positive relationship between religiosity and support for democracy. For 2007, this same pattern seems to hold. Those who attend once a month have the highest level of support (34.7%) compared to 26.75% for those who attend every week or more and around 20% for those who attend less. However, some people do not think that attendance reflects religiosity, so I turn to an alternate measure, which is worded as follows:

Independently of whether you attend religious services or not, would you say you are: A religious person, not a religious person, an atheist?

In 2013, 66.5% of those who say that they are religious (N=384) say democracy is absolutely important. Only 38.3% of those who say they are not religious (N=766) say democracy is absolutely important. This seems to echo the attendance-based measure of religiosity. We might conclude preliminary, then, that Hypothesis 3 is correct: religiosity increases support for democracy. However, the patterns in 2007 are very different; non-religious people have a slightly higher level of support (29.7% compared to 27.0%).

This means that we cannot rule out Hypothesis 4. There does seem to be some difference over time, suggesting that shorter-term political phenomena might be affecting how individuals use religion to assess democracy. We also need to investigate how religiosity differs across space and groups.

Regional Patterns

First, let's look at regional variation in support for democracy. Support for democracy was much higher in the North and Northeast in 2013, where 65.8% and 65.4% of people say that democracy is absolutely important. This drops to 41.4% of people in the South, 35.8% in Bangkok, and 17.1% in the Central region. This pattern seems to reflect the political divide in Thailand - the North and Northeast's favorite party is in power. Indeed, when we look at 2007, it is the North and Northeast that have lower levels of support for democracy. It could be, then, that Thais interpret this question in relation to whether democracy favors their party of choice. However, it is more complex than that, as my investigation of religion shows below.

How does religiosity play into this? First, I note that there is a lot of regional variance in how religious people are. The Northeast has the highest percentage of religious people, 45%, and the Central region the lowest with just 6%. The North (38.6%), Bangkok (35.8%), and South (35.5%) fall in the middle. Levels of religiosity do not change over time, and these same patterns are observed in 2007. More importantly, we observe that the relationship between religiosity and support for democracy continues to hold in all regions except for Bangkok: more religious people have higher support for democracy, by about 15-25%.

In 2007, religious people have slightly lower levels of support for democracy than non-religious people and this result does not change across regions.

Partisan Patterns

We continue to see no variation amongst supporters of the two main parties. Religious people support democracy by 23-24% more for both the Democrats and Pheu Thai in 2013.

Again, this is not the same pattern as in 2007. Religious people in both parties were slightly less supportive of democracy.

In sum, whatever changed between 2007 and 2013 to increase levels of support for democracy by a whopping 20% happened across the board. What are we to make of this?


So why are the religious increasing their support for democracy? First, their religiosity could genuinely be leading them to conclude that democracy is the best political system. If this were true, we should expect to see religious people be a/. more tolerant and trusting, and b/. more respectful of individual rights. In 2013, higher levels of religiosity seem to be correlated with thinking that people of other religions are just as moral and disagreeing that religious authorities should interpret laws in a democracy, but also lower trust for members of other religions, wanting to be neighbors with members of other religions less, and thinking religion is always right when it clashes with science. This is a confusing set of correlates and suggests that religiosity has become tied to democracy in a different way.

Another possible reason is that they are using democracy to justify their participation in politics for other reasons. This likewise suggests a different motivation than non-religious people for participating in politics. One possibility is that both secular-religious as well as intra-religious contests are driving this connect between religiosity and support for democracy. And as religious people get drawn into the crisis, the doctrinal tenets of Buddhism lead them to justify their participation with a political philosophy that matches their religious beliefs. They thus use the language of democracy without necessarily being convinced of its full merits.

What evidence is there of religious motivations for participation in the political crisis? I start with the secular-religious motivations and return to the now defunct Phalang Dharma party. On the side of the yellow shirts are found remnants of the "temple faction" of Phalang Dharma, led by Chamlong Srimuang (link). Chamlong's dislike of the red shirts is made all the more salient because of two political battles he fought in the past, one along the religious-secular dimension and the other an intra-religious one, but which has now essentially become a religious-secular one. First, Thaksin is a former member of Phalang Dharma, but one that represented the "careerist faction" whose assumption of the party's leadership coincided with the downfall of the party. These secular-minded politicians were attracted to Phalang Dharma's anti-corruption platform, but had radically different ideas regarding Chamlong's Buddhist-inspired political principles. Second, one of Thaksin's successors was Samak Sundaravej who led the Prachakorn Party at the time it sought the help of the Parian Tham conservative Buddhist association to discredit Chamlong's then fledgling party. Samak passed away in 2009, and his faction is no longer supported by the Parian Tham; however, the discord between Chamlong and the Samak faction likely remains.

The intra-religious motivations seem much stronger. Also on the side of the yellow shirts in the anti-government protests that preceded the coup earlier this year was Luang Pu Buddha Issara, an activist monk who led some of the protests and continues to be an influential voice in Thai politics (link). His followers include high-ranking member of the military and royalist politicians (link). While Pheu Thai was in government, Luang Pu faced disciplinary action by the National Office of Buddhism, the organization in charge of overseeing monks' behavior, for inappropriate conduct while the Buddhist Association of Thailand threatened to disrobe him (link). This suggests that the political crisis has seeped into the religious power structure.

Indeed, religion also played a role in legitimizing the side of the red shirts too. In 2010, hundreds of clerics quietly lent their support to pro-Shinawatra "Red Shirt" protesters (link), while dozens backed them by taking part in protests (link). More research needs to be done into the nature of the religious organizations backing both sides, but a good place to start is Donald Swearer's seminal piece Centre and Periphery: Buddhism and Politics in Modern Thailand (link). Swearer provides a fabulous and detailed history of the history of politics and religion in Thailand and shows how many of the contemporary religious movements (such as Santi Asoke) are related to centuries-old debates about the role of Buddhist orders from Thailand's periphery, especially parts of Thailand that were previously independent.

So, how did this become so salient between 2007 and 2013? Perhaps the answer has to do with the succession debate within Thailand's Sangha (order of monks). With the failing health of the then Supreme Patriarch, Nyanasamvara Suvaddhana, competition between Phra Maha Bua (of the same forest tradition that inspired the Santi Asoke sect that Chamlong belongs to) and Somdet Kiaw heated up. Phra Maha Bua was also an outspoken critic of Thaksin, indicating that Somdet had Thaksin's support. It is thus no surprise that the leader of the first yellow-shirt protests in 2005, Sondhi Limthongkul, was also a critic of Somdet. These are not mere coincidences, but reflect how this religious struggle is becoming incorporated into the political struggle. Nyanasamvara, Somdet and Maha Bua have all passed away further provoking debate over the future of the Sangha. However, the factions they represented continue to disagree about the future of the Sangha (link).

To be clear, I am not saying that this religious struggle is at the heart of the political crisis in Thailand, but what the data tell us about democracy in Thailand is that religion is becoming a more prominent part of the political struggle. This is not just a contest between old and new money, but also about control over the Buddhist religion in Thailand.

What I have been unable to explain in this post, however, is why religious people have turned to democracy per se. Of course, democracy has the currency of international legitimacy and is tied to concepts of universal human rights. The religious on both sides of the political equation may be seeking to legitimize their participation in politics with the language of democracy, but this needs to be explored more fully.


To summarize: Average support for democracy has jumped by about 20% between 2007 and 2013. Levels of religiosity have stayed the same. However, the relationship between religiosity and democracy has changed. In 2007, there was no relationship. Both religious and non-religious people supported democracy at the same rate. In 2013, religious peoples' support for democracy is almost double that of the non-religious. This jump in democracy is not consistently related to increased levels of tolerance or respect for others' rights. What seems to be happening is that, for both parties and across all regions, religiosity is becoming tied to democratic identity. This is because political leaders are reaching out to religion to legitimize their actions, but also because religious people are fighting their own battle through the political system. If this assertion is correct, the implication is that Buddhism is not only compatible with democracy, but that religion more generally is becoming a form of political legitimacy. In order to win this political crisis, you have to be both more religious and more democratic.


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