Every Wednesday at noon in the UK when parliament is in session, the British prime minister enters the House of Commons. For half an hour the prime minister must quell the curiosity of a roaring crowd of MPs who relentlessly ask questions, captive in the chamber until the speaker decides the house has heard enough.
It is a grueling process. President George H.W Bush once said, “I count my blessings for the fact I don’t have to go into that pit that [then prime minister] John Major stands in, nose-to-nose with the opposition, all yelling at each other.” To be prepared for the session, the prime minister must be completely on top of his brief, and ready to defend his record and his policies.
It would not be a bad thing for Thailand to have something like the UK’s weekly session of MPs asking questions to the prime minister. But recent events show that Thailand’s parliament still has some distance to travel.
This week saw parliamentary debuts for the leaders of two countries: that of the UK, and that of Thailand. Boris Johnson made a statement to the House of Commons and answered 129 questions in two and a half hours. Prayut Chan-o-cha, on the other hand, came to parliament to give his official policy statement on behalf of the new government, while defending them to MPs.
The two sessions drew a sharp contrast between the two men. For all his faults (of which there are many), Johnson is an engaging orator who has shown great skill at the despatch box. He, like many British prime ministers, has a great talent for avoiding questions and going on more politically beneficial tangents. But it is undeniable that Johnson did his job and engaged with parliament, even if one dislikes what was actually coming out of his mouth.
Prayut, on the other hand, has certainly been bruised by his first experience with parliament. We all guessed that he is not a man who would enjoy parliamentary scrutiny, and we were right. The prime minister lost it, and did so dramatically. He cut off “brotherly ties” with an MP while yelling at him about his rudeness, inappropriately called another one “a pretty lady”, complained that MPs were disrespecting him by laughing at him, and stormed out more than once.
It’s hard to recall the last time a Thai prime minister seemed so out of place in parliament. Indeed, if it was Yingluck or Thaksin who had behaved so unprofessionally, Palang Pracharat’s supporters would be up in arms (although Thaksin himself was also not a fan of scrutiny and skipped many meetings).
A good way to imagine this situation is of two universes colliding. Prayut has spent the five years with virtually unlimited powers, and his entire career before that was in the strict hierarchy of the military where he gave orders and others complied. For the first time, he has been dropped into a new world where people were allowed to challenge him and mock him to his face — in other words, a world where freedom of expression exists.
This is where we can learn something from the UK — that we should expect the prime minister to be able to engage effectively with parliament. Prayut’s behavior shouldn’t be normalized, because it isn’t normal — a prime minister in a Westminster-style democracy needs to know the conventions of parliamentary debate and must have the capacity to defend his policies without blowing up repeatedly at the opposition.
Similarly, we also need to expect that our parliamentarians will respect the norms of parliamentary democracy instead of seeking to subvert it. Take, for example, Senator Tawachai Samudsakorn, who said the following in parliament:
I insist that if we want Thailand to develop, all Thai men need to be conscripted like Korean men. In that case, everyone will develop a sense of friendship and will not quarrel, and we will not have any coups ever again. With our current situation, we’ll need a coup for the next 20 years.
Never mind the fact that his assertion is ridiculous (most other countries don’t have conscription — and indeed don’t have coups). It reveals a blatant disrespect of democratic norms. Perhaps this is only expected, given senators were appointed by the NCPO, but respect of parliamentary processes should be expected as a minimum from those who sit in parliament.
In the Bangkok Post, Professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak wrote that Thailand needs to “give parliamentary politics a chance“:
With government and opposition back at work again, in contrast to the previous military-appointed rubber-stamp legislature under junta rule, Thailand has yet another small window of opportunity to regain and rebuild popular rule.
Not only must the Thai people, however, give parliament a chance — the prime minister, his party and the senators he handpicked must also give the elected parliament the respect it deserves and do its best to cooperate with it. If Prayut wants to be the prime minister even of a semi-democratic government, he will need to learn to keep his cool and do better with MPs that he cannot command.