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.

Weak legislature

Thus in the institutional setting of Thai democracy, the weakest link is the legislature. By and large, parliamentary outcomes are pre-determined. When Parliament convenes and its proceedings are televised, it is mostly perfunctory. Equally appalling is the fact that viewers regard the proceedings as a form of entertainment, something to laugh at rather than a reason to demand more accountability and better performance.

Thai MPs and senators regularly engage in dramatic debates, but the outcomes are a foregone conclusion. The merits of argument do not carry the day. Party lines do.

It is a rare exception when MPs act on their conscience rather than personal interests and party lines. The last time this happened was in 1995 when a small coalition partner pulled out because of government corruption.

The performance of Thai MPs is disappointing. Legislative committees and subcommittees are convened, but quorums are difficult to obtain. Once elected, MPs focus on their own concerns, accountable largely to their political patrons and party umbrella.

True, MPs have to spend substantial time in their constituencies. They provide patronage at the grassroots for local weddings, funerals, temple fairs and municipal public works, areas where state functions and largesse are lacking.

But although MPs and senators are given many state-financed entourages and perquisites, they do not feel the need to focus on national issues. Indeed, their lawmaking skills leave much to be desired. The gap between the local and national affairs is huge. Bridging this gap and making local grassroots leaders more integrated into the national political fabric will improve MPs' performance in the longer term. Until then, Thailand's Lower House will remain hollow and answerable to the executive branch.

Senate reform

For the Upper House, the decisions of appointed and elected senators are based on partisanship. Appointed senators tend to move against everything associated with Thaksin's party machine, whereas their elected counterparts mostly tread in the opposite pro-Thaksin direction.

One major difference is that senators are eligible for the longer but one-time term of six years. Senators are not as attached to constituencies and thus should be more available and attuned to policy work. Yet they are no more interested in the substance of lawmaking than MPs.

As it happened last month, the Bill to reform the Senate was fiercely resisted by opposition Democrat Party MPs and appointed senators. The latter would be directly affected by the change to a fully elected Upper House. The 2007 Constitution, drafted during the military coup period, was designed to balance electoral power with appointed prerogatives.

The Democrat Party, together with the appointed half of the Senate, the judiciary, independent agencies such as the Election Commission and the Office of the Auditor-General, and sections of pro-establishment civil society, were supposed to keep Thaksin's forces from dominating Thailand's democratic game at will.

Government agenda

But now it appears the Yingluck government is pressing full steam ahead with its legislative agenda. This includes the amnesty Bill, constitutional amendments to the Budget passage and flood management and infrastructure expenditures. While the government can ram these Bills through because it has parliamentary numbers in its favour, doing so would likely elicit more extra-parliamentary opposition. There have been calls from anti-government groups for the Democrat Party to quit Parliament and join street politics, a move that would be tantamount to a boycott of electoral democracy. This is a nuclear option for anti-Thaksin columns.

If the main opposition party, which commands almost a third of the Lower House, rejects the parliamentary system and opts to demonstrate in the streets for its objectives, Thailand would see another round of brinkmanship and confrontation.

The pro-Thaksin camp now has the upper hand. It can dominate the rules and win Thailand's democratic game once and for all if it wants to. But it would be a meaningless victory if other stakeholders refuse to play along.

The writer teaches international political economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok.

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