The latest of Thailand’s never-ceasing political conundrums is the fiery debate over the makeup of the Senate. The process of charter drafting has been long and winding- one has already been rejected, and the final details have yet to be decided about the current draft. A referendum has been proposed for August, which should invite a healthy amount of debate over the merits of what could become Thailand’s next constitution.
To appoint, or not to appoint, that indeed is the question. The newest proposal to draw immediate heavy fire from politicians across the political spectrum came from the NCPO; it asked for the Constitution Drafting Committee to allow the Senate to be wholly made up of appointed members over the five years after a new government is elected. Of the 250 seats, six would go to the top brass in the military. Controversial enough, but that was not the biggest area of contention; instead, it was the proposal that the Senate, while having no power to appoint a prime minister, would be able to hold censure debates and launch a vote of no confidence on the elected government.
The reason why this proposal would be so controversial is far from confusing; predictably, it was decried as undemocratic and simply a tool by which the military could prolong its rule of the country even after the return to elections. To a large extent, that much is true; the proposal is blatantly undemocratic and any liberal democracy that looked to Western styles of governance for inspiration would be unhappy with it. We can easily dispel of any pretence that Thailand will be returning to full democracy immediately after power is handed back to a civilian government through elections.
The question is: why do we have to immediately return to full democracy?
When history is taught in schools, teachers often ask students why the study of history is important. The answer, they often say, is because we can learn lessons from the past so that we do not repeat the same mistakes in the future.
An immediate return to full democracy would ignore the lessons from Thailand’s own recent history. After a year of military rule in 2007, an immediate return to elections began a new round of protests and political instability, resulting in the successive falls of the Somchai, Abhisit and Yingluck governments. As the same climate of extreme political polarisation has continued to the present day, reconciliation still a matter unresolved, an election would almost certainly result in one side taking power and the other side protesting and calling for the new government’s removal. The country would then spiral once again into political chaos, leading eventually to- how shocking!- an extraconstitutional removal of the government: a military coup to return the country to stability.
To avoid this same outcome, it is imperative that the same path of action not be followed. Some sort of mechanism should be put in place so that stability can be ensured without an extraconstitutional seizure of power. For this reason, an appointed Senate that is above our polarised politics but has the power to launch a vote of no-confidence starts to make sense. No longer would democracy have to be suspended every time the government is paralysed due to internecine, never-ending conflict. It also adds a new layer of checks and balances to policymaking. Runaway corruption and extravagant but insensible policies (see: rice pledging scheme) would be more difficult to pursue, because of fear from the government that a no-confidence vote could be launched.
A counter-argument could eventually be raised that the House of Representatives already holds power to hold a censure debate and a vote of no-confidence. However, representatives are to be elected, and in a parliamentary democracy such as Thailand’s, a government that already has a majority in the House would have to try hard to lose a vote of no-confidence. Even a shaky coalition government like Abhisit’s survived multiple. The Constitutional Court would also have the ability to remove a prime minister, certainly, as it has done so on two occasions in the past, but the judicial process is long and would allow the country to plunge deep into instability before any resolution emerged.
And in the end, let us remember that democracy is a means, not an end in itself. If the goal is peace, stability and good governance, then adding a mechanism that would ensure peace, stability and good governance in the short run is nothing to complain about. Certainly, a democratic system of government is an ideal that we can all aspire for, but if it would almost certainly return Thailand back to the old loop of political conflict, then why have it now when it is doomed to fail?
If Thailand is to escape the middle-income trap, and to make true strides in developing the country, the perennial problem of political instability must be fixed. As Thailand continues to lose its competitiveness when compared with its neighbours and when the international arena is fraught with economic and political uncertainties, this is no time to be launching yet another attempt to shut down shopping malls and airports.
Our recent history has already taught us a lesson: Thailand’s current conditions makes it especially ripe for a new loop of conflict and divisions, and returning to electoral democracy before a resolution of its underlying causes is not a solution. Since we learned that lesson the hard way, let’s not forget it.