Thai democracy's weakest link: the legislature

Thai democracy's weakest link: the legislature

Those who have been puzzled by the recurrent turmoil in Thailand over the past decade need look no further than events in Bangkok last month. It began with street protests to destabilise and depose, if possible, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Indeed, the Yingluck government has reached a juncture similar to a decade ago when Thaksin Shinawatra was running Thailand. As the executive branch with a strong electoral mandate and a legislature in its grip, it can easily get its way. The judiciary is leery of more interventions, the military is hedging its future, and the monarchy is becoming a bigger question mark in view of the King's advancing age.

Street demonstrations have so far been ineffective in producing a change of government. Parliament, meanwhile, has been unable to offer itself as a balancing and reliable pillar of Thailand's democratic system. To avoid more extra-parliamentary misadventures, Thailand's democratic institutions must become more effective in addressing the aspirations and grievances of the electorate.

Unbalanced structure

Unlike recognised democracies elsewhere, some institutions in Thailand that should be strong are not, while substantial authority resides in places that should not be so powerful. The executive branch, currently the Yingluck government, backed by the ruling Puea Thai party in the Lower House, has been trying to assert more authority and policy thrust after two tentative years in power.

But the legislature, dominated by Puea Thai MPs and other governing parties along with elected senators, is akin to a rubber stamp.

The judiciary, on the other hand, has been assertive and interventionist in weakening the executive and legislative branches in recent years. It has dissolved ruling parties twice and banned scores of elected politicians.

The military obviously has been powerful, as proven by its many putsches and softer coercion over the years. It asserted itself with a coup in 2006 and political manipulations thereafter.

And the monarchy imparts authority that is widely seen but rarely discussed openly.

While it may be Thailand's overlooked asset compared to violent electoral democracies elsewhere, civil society is wide and deep. But it is also divided over future political directions.

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