Thailand may have supposedly changed its system of governance in 1932, but it is well known that skepticism about democracy remains deeply entrenched amongst many Thais. It is not uncommon to observe some using democracy as a bit of a dirty word, representing in their view the wrongful empowerment of the ignorant masses who often vote against their own interests. And on the surface, the UK’s Brexit debacle seems to illustrate the worst that many Thais fear about democracy.
An expression of the popular will that went contrary to what the elite and technocrats warned would lead to impending disaster has plunged the UK down years of political chaos, economic decline and, seemingly, a cliff’s edge in the form of no-deal Brexit. Indeed, the UK’s turmoil does not shed a very favorable light on liberal democracy, and Thais who already question the value of the democratic process would hardly see Brexit as an argument for why greater levels of democracy would be beneficial for Thailand.
But a closer analysis of the course of Brexit, especially the events that has transpired since British prime minister Boris Johnson took office, yields a more nuanced series of lessons that should convince even skeptical Thais that parliamentary democracy is worth fighting for.
Firstly, it corrects the misconception that liberal democracy is just about voting and elections. That is profoundly untrue; while elections are an important part of the democratic process, liberal democracy is also about checks and balances.
In the UK, the popular will for Brexit had been expressed through a narrow referendum victory, but there was a lack of societal consensus on how Brexit should be executed, and no majority for a disruptive no-deal Brexit that Johnson desired. This was well represented in the British lower chamber, the House of Commons, which last week voted to block no-deal Brexit.
The British example reveals an important distinction — we live in a parliamentary democracy, not a direct democracy. The system Thais should seek to build is not one where every popular passion becomes policy; instead, we aspire to a well-balanced framework where multiple veto points can ensure that good policy is created.
The second lesson we can learn is that parliamentary means is the best way to resolve political conflict, and hence parliament in Thailand should rightfully take center stage just as the British government has.
When parliament was vocal in opposing Johnson’s Brexit plans, he responded by proroguing parliament for five weeks to ensure that parliament will not be able to weigh in on his plans. The House of Commons responded by seizing control of the parliamentary agenda, which the government usually controls. Through this, it was able to re-assert to an extent the centrality of parliament in national policymaking.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha does not appear to be fond of parliament; neither are former leaders such as Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra. But this notion of parliament as a fundamental part of the political system should be strengthened.
Indeed, there are key elements of the British system that Thailand could and should look into adopting to strengthen the legislature’s ability to check the executive. The House of Commons has a weekly session of questions to the prime minister; it would do Thailand well if parliament were able to regularly scrutinize Prayut the same way that Johnson must take tough questions from hostile MPs. The British also allow ministers to be summoned to parliament for urgent questions; what if Capt. Thammanat were scrutinized over his qualifications in the same way?
Third, Brexit shows that while parliamentary democracy is indeed fallible, it is far better than the alternative where an authoritarian executive is able to push through whichever policy he likes.
According to British government leaks of ‘Operation Yellowhammer’, which planned for the worst case scenario under no-deal Brexit, UK food and water supplies, medical supplies and energy and other critical systems would have come under risk. Yet that was precisely what Johnson was prepared to inflict on the British people in order to accomplish Brexit.
Parliament was able to legislate against this outcome, but it was through the extraordinary luck of having both a minority government and a speaker in the chair, John Bercow, who was willing to bend the rules and ignore precedent. But if Johnson had authoritarian powers, the outcome could have been very different.
Prajak Kongkirati, a professor at Thammasat University, tweeted last week that where ancient states tried to find “good people” to rule their nations, modern states attempt to build “good systems” that can foster good leaders and keep bad ones in check.
That is precisely what Thailand should aspire to — to build a functioning democratic system. And believe it or not, the British mess showed that It can come under strain, but that it still works.
(Cover image credits).