Would Thailand be run better if its PM was elected directly by the people?

Would Thailand be run better if its PM was elected directly by the people?
People demonstrating against Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on the first day of the 10th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) on October 16, 2014 in Milan.

There have been loud calls from the public to have a directly elected prime minister as part of the country's political reform.

Proponents of the idea argue that the system could produce a more democratic and effective government. Opponents, however, warn it could challenge the highest institution or that a PM without parliamentary support could result in an ineffective administration.

According to a National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) poll conducted in June, 75 per cent of the population supported the idea of having a directly elected PM; while only 9.7 per cent said Parliament could elect either an elected MP or an "outsider" for the PM; 7.5 per cent said Parliament should elect only an MP as PM.

The pre-coup Thai political system had a bicameral legislative system consisting of a House of Representatives and the Senate. The lower House proposed and passed legislation and regulated the government's exercise of power, while the Senate examined and checked bills passed by the lower House.

However, in recent years, the legislative body has proved inadequate in scrutinising bills proposed by the executive, because of "money politics." Observers said the two chambers had practically "merged", which could lead to parliamentary dictatorship.

The Office of the Permanent Secretary for Defence made a bold suggestion to the National Reform Council (NRC); it suggested that a "directly elected" PM could free the executive branch from the legislative. Support from the general public, rather than Parliament, would strengthen the PM's power to run the country more freely and effectively.

Nevertheless, a compromise would still have to be reached between the PM and Parliament as legislative duties would be performed by MPs.

Critics of a "directly elected" PM

Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, NRC member and former People's Democratic Reform Committee co-leader, said the cost of organising a nationwide PM election campaign would be considerable. This would put PM candidates with more financial capital at an advantage. Contrary to easing concerns over "money politics", it could make matters worse.

He said a directly elected PM without parliamentary support would find it difficult to execute policies and pass legislation bills. He pointed to the US Obama administration as an example.

Another NRC member on political affairs, Chai-anan Samudavanija, also disagreed with the notion of a directly elected PM. He feared many government officials, such as provincial governors or police chiefs, who still held office under an appointment system, could be turned into tools of PM candidates during election campaigns.

Former Pheu Thai MP, Udomdej Rattanasatien said, "I do not think the idea of direct election of a PM is possible in Thailand. Let's consider the fact that we strongly oppose the idea of a presidency."

"Although the proposed idea remains under constitutional monarchy, it is possible that a PM, who gains office from a direct election, could become very powerful and popular, which might appear to contravene the presence of the monarchy, a very serious issue. Hence, I do not think it is possible," said the former MP.

Sombat said the proposal of a "directly elected" PM might lead to public misunderstanding which could result in a governing presidency, a challenge to the highest institution - a sensitive topic in Thailand.

However, such a notion is false, Sombat explained. He said that "unlike the president, the proposed directly- elected PM wouldn't be the head of state, commander in chief of the Army or perform the country's ambassadorial roles. The directly elected PM [would be] only the head of the country's administration."

Alternative

Because of its apparent shortcomings, Sombat suggested an alternative method - to have separate elections for the executive and legislative branches - similar to the parliamentary system used in the Bangkok election.

"There should be a general election for political parties, which would publicly announce their PM candidates. The elected party must win more than half of the total voter turnout in the election. If no one managed to do so, there should be a second round of elections," he said.

"Once elected, the PM could freely choose his cabinet members so the executive branch would be free of direct parliamentary influence. If the PM was found guilty of misconduct, the ruling party would be forced to step down and make way for a leader of the party who came second in the election," the NRC member on political affairs proposed.

He explained that multiple rounds of elections meant vote buying would become more difficult, as it would cost more money. Furthermore the executive branch could operate relatively free of parliamentary influence, while the PM was guaranteed to receive certain parliamentary support from his party.

"Outsider" PM

NRC member on political affairs Prasarn Marukpitak said he would be in favour of an "outsider" PM because it could provide an alternative solution to solve political conflict.

"The key to solve the country's political problems is to have righteous MPs who can make good judgements, therefore the acquisition process of MPs becomes very important," said the former senator.

He suggested a quarter of MPs should be appointed from professional associations, while the rest who had been elected must win more than half of the popular vote in their constituencies.

"If we have righteous MPs who possess good judgement, then they should be entitled to vote for PM candidates who could either be an elected MP or an outsider, whoever they saw most suitable for the office."

However, Udomdej doesn't agree with this idea because it could provide a political mechanism for powerful or wealthy individuals who do not want to be examined or regulated by the people, to become PM.

"If we are to use this system, I suggest every political party announce to the public who they are going to nominate for PM during the election campaign," he said.

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