One of the great traditions of British democracy is Prime Minister’s Questions, which happens every week in the House of Commons. During this session, members of the House may pose any question they like for the prime minister to answer. While some deride this exercise as mostly theatrical, it also serves the important purpose of holding the executive to account and ensuring that the country’s leaders know what they are doing.
In Thailand, prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha seems to have decided to bring this tradition to the country but in reverse. Instead of seeking to answer questions, he instead posed them to the nation. Answer them, the prime minister requested, and deliver them to the government. He will then read the answers and decide on the best course of action for the country.
The questions asked were:
- Do you think the next election will get Thailand a government that can ensure good governance?
- If that is not the case, what can be done?
- Elections are an integral part of democracy but are elections alone, with no regards for the country’s future or national reform, right or wrong?
- Do you think immoral politicians should be given the chance to come back to politics, and if conflict re-emerges, who will solve it and by what means?
The outrage, predictably, was swift. After all, an unelected leader asking questions such as these was always bound to spark controversy. (One can only wish that the prime minister had a better public relations team to vet his ideas before implementing them). Pheu Thai, of course, led the charge, with former deputy prime minister Chaturon Chaisaeng accusing Prayut of being ‘addicted to power and he hopes that the public will ask him to stay in power for longer’. Commentators now believe that this is a sign that Prayut is planning yet another delay of the promised elections, and that they stand ready to tear apart yet another roadmap to democracy that they have laid out.
But beyond the bad optics, however, I believe that these questions are worth considering. Many of the government’s critics have decided to simply ignore the substance of these questions and merely give the blanket answer that there must be an immediate return to elections, for it is the will of the people that must decide who runs the country. I agree with the core of this sentiment: in this time and age, the democratic process is the only legitimate way to decide on this country’s leadership. But to completely ignore the difficult questions that the prime minister poses is also intellectually lazy. It makes me suspect that they are not answered precisely because the critics do not have answers.
We’re not going to ignore the hard tasks here. Let us attempt to answer some of these questions, to the best of our ability.
* * *
Do you think the next election will get Thailand a government that can ensure good governance? An optimistic person would hope that the next government will ensure good governance. Recent Thai history has shown, however, that that person would have to not only be optimistic, but wildly optimistic. I’ve written before about the woes that plagued the last elected government of Yingluck Shinawatra, from the failed rice pledging scheme to the Amnesty Bill. These are signs of incompetence, corruption and naked self-interest, not good governance. With Pheu Thai likely to win any new election, therefore, can we say that the next election will get Thailand a government that can ensure good governance? Most likely not. Even an election victory for Abhisit Vejjajiva’s Democrats may not ensure this; his government also had many members accused of corruption.
If that is not the case, what can be done? I think that the constitution that has been approved in last year’s referendum has actually done much to try to push Thailand towards better governance. As I wrote in my post from last year: there are new regulations on political corruption. A deterrent to implementing badly thought through populist policies have been added by forcing parties to explain the values and risks of their proposed policies. An appointed Senate will serve as a check and balance to the elected government’s power. A new electoral system will mean that parties will need to win larger shares of the vote in order to attain an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. I think this is the furthest that the Constitution Drafting Committee could have went to try to promote better governance in Thailand within the framework of a democratic system. As such, the new checks and balances within the system should help to channel whichever party wins the next election towards better, if not yet good, governance. Anything further will require time, which Prayut does not have.
Elections are an integral part of democracy but are elections alone, with no regards for the country’s future or national reform, right or wrong? An article in The Atlantic, ‘The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum’, says this:
But for Lee Kuan Yew, “the ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society establish conditions that improve the standard of living for the majority of its people.” As one of his fellow Singaporeans, Calvin Cheng, wrote this past week in The Independent, “Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls.” Lee Kuan Yew always insisted that the proof is in the pudding: rising incomes for the broad middle class, health, security, economic opportunity.
I think that this is an important answer to an important question. I’ve discussed it many times before on this blog: are elections a means to an end, or an end in itself? Some of the junta’s critics have seemed to worship elections as an end, but I argue, like Lee does, that elections are merely a means to achieve prosperity and development.
This question, however, may be redundant. Like it or not, in the 21st century, there is no alternative to holding regular elections. To prevent permanent authoritarianism, the electorate must be allowed to express its will. Therefore, even if you choose to argue that elections, with all its drama and short-term focus, is detrimental to Thailand, what are the alternatives?
Do you think immoral politicians should be given the chance to come back to politics, and if conflict re-emerges, who will solve it and by what means? This is an explosive question, given that it is asked by a man who launched a coup d’état to remove an elected government. It is also the most important one. Thailand in the past seventeen or so years has been in a cycle of self-destruction, with election followed by protest followed by coup (and then a repeat). One of the main goals of the coup was (or should have been) to prevent this pattern from re-emerging again. Yet it is difficult to see how this can be avoided, because the government has failed to attain a satisfactory level of reconciliation between the two sides of the conflict. A Pheu Thai government would lead to an eventual uprising from the Bangkok and southern PDRC protesters; the same would occur with the red shirts should Abhisit return to power.
What is clear, however, is that the next conflict must be allowed to play out to its own conclusion. The military cannot return for another coup d’état, because this prevents Thai democracy from ever developing. Instead, the government must trust that the Constitution Drafting Committee has done enough to include mechanisms for resolving political conflicts without an extra-constitutional method such as a coup.
And should immoral politicians be given a chance to come back to politics? This should be up to the rule of law.
* * *
And so I’ve done it; I’ve answered the four questions that prime minister Prayut has posed. After answering them, there seems little need for such drama from the politicians; they are legitimate questions about the foundations of our political system that deserve answering. And based on my answers, this is what I believe the government should do. The government should stick to its roadmap and its course of action. Many of the political reforms that were needed have been accomplished via the drafting and approving of the new constitution. The NCPO will still exist for some time to continue to push Prayut’s reform priorities. Now the government will need to allow democracy to run its course.
What the government should focus, now, is on using its remaining time in office to plant the roots for long-term economic development in Thailand. It has been able to accomplish some of this by laying out important promising visions, such as Thailand 4.0. Now the government needs to ensure that the road to getting to attain its vision is clear. I would not mind a mechanism that compels the next government to continue on this vision, because I believe that the biggest flaw of democracy is how oriented it is to the short-term. Of course, it would be undemocratic to compel an elected government to an unelected government’s priorities, but such things may be necessary in a developing country that still has yet to find its own footing.
So, to the politicians: let’s dispel with the drama. There was nothing wrong with the prime minister asking perfectly legitimate questions, and should you have the courage to answer them, you will find them necessary for the inspiration you need to drive this country forward.