“Democracy is messy, and it’s hard”, Robert Kennedy once said. “It’s never easy”. Autocracies, on the other hand, are fast and efficient. No wonder the so-called benevolent dictatorships are so attractive; why risk the messiness of democracy when you can get things done at the stroke of a pen?
With the commencement of the new parliamentary session in Thailand, the messiness of democracy is already manifesting itself. The first day of parliament saw chaos when the Palang Pracharath party proposed that the election of the house speaker be delayed, without providing a clear reason, provoking hours of debate. (Ludicrously, an MP from a minor party suggested that the delay was needed as he needed time to learn parliamentary procedures). The subsequent roll-call vote took hours, followed by argument over whether or not 5 MPs who, improbably, ‘mis-voted’ would be allowed to re-vote. And then, of course, was the actual election of the speaker itself.
Already, some are bemoaning a return to a democracy (of sorts), decrying that parliament in itself is already becoming living proof that an efficient dictatorship is far superior to a messy democracy. Indeed, the chaotic first day is a stark contrast to the meetings of the National Legislative Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament appointed by the military junta which has passed the government’s legislation in the past five years. The NLA’s meetings are quiet and somber affairs, with bills often being passed unanimously. Recently, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha defended the NLA’s work by furiously asking reporters to compare how much legislation it passed compared to elected parliaments.
Perhaps the number of bills passed by a legislative chamber could be used as an indicator of productivity; there is a clear difference, after all, between a gridlocked Congress and one dominated by the same party. But to compare the NLA and the House of Representatives would be to compare apples and oranges. Parliament is supposed to be messy, and rightfully so.
The purpose of parliament is not only to legislate. To legislate without scrutiny is to unquestioningly kowtow to the dominance of the executive. The NLA passed a controversial cybersecurity bill that the government simply defended as a “good law”. It is unlikely that the same bill would have sailed through a properly elected parliament in the same way. Parliament also exists as a forum for open debate about national issues. When an MP called for less discussion, he was promptly smacked down by the house speaker pro tempore who insisted that all had the right to be heard.
Thus the messy parliament that we saw yesterday is how parliaments are supposed to function. A representative democracy in a pluralistic society is bound to have areas of differences. It is supposed to permit opposition to exist. As Professor Prajak Kongkirati wrote on Twitter, “If anyone thinks parliament is too chaotic, I want you to think again. Debate is normal; what is abnormal is an NCPO-appointed legislature that passes every bill without debate, without opposition and without public input”.
What is heartening, instead, is the fact that more people than ever are watching the business of parliament, with the meetings now being streamed live on YouTube and social media. The hashtag ‘#ประชุมสภา’ (parliament meeting) was the top trending hashtag in Thailand yesterday, showing the amount of interest amongst Thailand’s netizens. That is a good sign — a more informed and aware citizenry is always a good thing. Gone are the days when parliament can work in relative obscurity; technology is instead enabling an unprecedented level of social and political engagement.
Thailand still has a long way to go before realizing a true democracy. The fact that a lively parliament is back is a good first step forward.