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Democracy with brakes on weakens govt

Release2015-06-24

  Somkiat Tangkitvanich

Since 1932 Thailand has had 19 constitutions. Each one has been longer than the one before. The current draft is 43,000 words (in Thai), 10 times as many as the first one written in 1932. If a constitution were a car, Thailand would be forever changing models. Now it seems the latest “carstitution”, if we might call it that, is being asked to do an awful lot.

In general terms, the new constitution has to both prevent and remedy some chronic problems of Thai public life. In particular, it is being asked to fulfil the ambitious hopes of the Thai people through such features as an anti-corruption mechanism as well as a mechanism to curtail the dominance of politicians over civil servants. It is also being required to enforce the rule of law and promote morals and ethical behaviour as well as fiscal discipline while discouraging populist policies. Most importantly, it must also have a mechanism to push forward reforms in 10 key areas of public life.

The truth is no constitution can do all these things. Placing such high expectations on a constitution is like manufacturing a car with far too many technical features.

If a car is going to get you to its destination speedily and safely, above all it needs to be designed so the driver can operate both the accelerator and brakes in a balanced way. In constitutional terms, that means a suitable mechanism to allow the exercise of executive power (accelerator) and one to balance that power (brakes).

In politics, the accelerator is the combination of an election and a political system that enables strong executive government. The brakes, on the other hand, are a parliament and independent institutions that are able to check and balance the power of that executive government.

Both the accelerator and brakes on the pre-1997 “carstitution” were dysfunctional. The election system was designed so there could be more than one member of parliament representing a constituency.

Thus it became extremely difficult for any one party to win a majority in parliament. This made a coalition government inevitable and the result was a lame executive lacking in accountability to the electorate.

In 1997 the car was redesigned. The emphasis shifted to the accelerator thanks to the electoral system based on a first-past-the-post voting rule, or commonly known in Thailand as “one member of parliament, one constituency”. The result was a government drawn from a majority single party under the politically astute leadership of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister. Lots of new policies followed.

Then, however, the brakes were the problem. The independent bodies that were supposed to provide the checks and balances proved inadequate to the task. As a result, the government was able to abuse its power.

Then came the 2007 model which, as a result of the experiences with the 1997 one, was redesigned to enhance the brakes. It empowered independent bodies, in particular the Constitutional Court. The result was a government reluctant to introduce policies the country needed.

The latest “carstitution” model, currently in the designer’s workshop, promises to be a car with an even weaker accelerator and stronger brakes. The plan is to weaken political parties by allowing an unelected prime minister and making it possible for candidates to represent a “political group”, although the latter is likely to be eliminated after much opposition.

In addition, a new election system – the so-called “German formula” of proportional representation – will almost certainly lead to coalition governments, weakening the executive.

There will be more brake functions through the greater empowerment of unelected senators and through the establishment of new independent bodies, such as a National Reform Council that will further balance executive power.

The likely consequence of all this is that whatever government there might be after an election under this model, it is unlikely to be able to solve the country’s many serious economic and social problems, including its education system, lack of competitiveness and an ageing society.

If this constitution is adopted, amending it will be difficult. Any changes will have to be approved by a “supermajority” of the whole of parliament, including senators.

The trickiest task will fall to the Constitutional Court, which will be required to rule whether the amendment is “constitutional”. The harder it is to amend the charter, the more likely it is one day just to be torn up. Like a car prone to crashing.

In my opinion, it is acceptable to have a weak accelerator in order to have a coalition government in exchange for reconciliation, for a transitional period. But it is unacceptable in the long term to have a weak accelerator and strong brakes and not be able to do anything about it. This will undermine the country’s administration and condemn Thailand to another lost decade.

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Somkiat Tangkitvanich, PhD, is president of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

First published: ฺBangkok Post, June 24, 2015