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Politics

Is Thailand heading for a democracy of overseers?

A group of volunteers show the handouts, which are aimed at boosting voter turnout. (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

BANGKOK -- On Aug. 7 the Thai people will vote on a new draft constitution that has been drawn up by the Constitution Drafting Committee at the behest of the country's military government. While there are many critics who regard the draft as undemocratic, some people see it as sensible when considering the country's political scene in recent years. Viewed closely, though, controversial articles in the draft show how much popular rule is distrusted by the military and other traditional ruling elites.

The drafting committee positions the first five years after the enforcement of the new constitution as a transitional period for the transfer of power from the military regime to a civilian government and sets out in Articles 262-279 a number of temporary measures effective during only that period.

Most notably, the draft charter calls for a major change in the structure of the Senate, specifically the upper house of the National Assembly of Thailand. Under the constitution of 2007, which had been in force until it was rescinded after the 2014 coup, 77 of its 150 members were popularly elected, with the remaining 73 members appointed by a selection committee.

Article 269 of the draft constitution, which deals with the new upper house, stipulates the chamber be composed of 250 seats. Of the total, 244 would be selected by the National Council for Peace and Order, as the ruling junta calls itself, from rosters of up to 600 people put together by Selection Committee and Election Commission. The remaining six seats would be reserved for the permanent secretary of defense, the supreme commander, the commanders in chief of the army, air and navy, and the chief of police. It would mark the first time in more than 15 years that the Senate has no popularly elected members.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of the military government, upholds the proposed appointed Senate, which he says would oversee the government's efforts to tackle reform and realize a better government, transparency and national strategy. But the Senate, made up of members selected by the military junta and the top executives of the security authorities, could turn prove problematic for the government formed by the majority force in the lower house in the course of deliberation on budgets and bills.

A second question on the ballot form also asks voters whether they agree that both houses should jointly agree on the prime minister. This would effectively hand control to the senate, which is entirely nominated by the military, and reverse 30 years of political progress. Proposed changes in the electoral system for the lower house are disadvantageous for large political parties. The system is close to the previous one in that it would be a combination of single-seat electoral districts and proportional representation under which a party is allotted seats according to its list of candidates on the basis of the total numbers of votes cast for it. But the proposed Article 91 adopts a new way of counting ballots, which is intended to restrict the ability of large political parties to succeed in the proportional representation system, in view of their strength in getting many of their candidates elected in individual electoral districts.

In the lower house election held in 2011 -- the last time Thais voted in a nationwide election -- the Pheu Thai Party, founded by former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, achieved a stand-alone majority in the 500-member chamber, installing Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin, as prime minister. In the election, the Pheu Thai Party gained some 200 seats from electoral districts and about 60 under the proportional representation system. According to an analysis by the party, if a lower house election were to be held under the newly proposed system, it would see only 20 candidates elected under proportional representation, with the total number of its seats in the lower house tumbling to less than half the chamber.

The Pheu Thai Party's secretary-general, Phumtham Wechayachai, frankly acknowledges that it would be difficult to win a stand-alone majority in the lower house under the new election system. The upper house would be the largest force in the parliament, the party secretary said. He noted the likelihood of the Senate functioning as a single major political party and setting the policy agenda. Any future Thai government, which will likely be forced to take the form of a coalition, will find it difficult to implement policy measures in disregard of the upper house's opinion. Therefore, even if a party and its allies rise to power, they may have a hard time making good on election promises.

Overseer

Behind the military regime's desire to pare back the power of a popularly elected government is the ruling elite, including officers and bureaucrats, which has a deep-rooted distrust of politicians. These entrenched interest groups take a hostile view of the political group supporting Thaksin Shinawatra, which has won every election it has contested since 2001, regarding the Shinawatra side as dangerously distorting national politics.

Of the last five general elections, two were held under abnormal circumstances that damped voter turnout, and can be discounted. The remaining three saw an average turnout of 76.22% -- respectable by any standard and a very far cry from the early 1980s when less than half the population bothered to vote. A large turnout for the coming referendum would confirm the undoubted overall trend toward greater voter participation.

The draft constitution would also equip independent institutions, such as the constitutional court, with greater authority, in order to keep politicians in check.

A second question on the ballot form also asks voters whether they agree that both houses should jointly agree on the prime minister. This would effectively hand control to the senate, which is entirely nominated by the military, and reverse 30 years of political progress. The proposed constitutional changes aim at setting up a democracy overseen by the upper house and independent organizations with the intent of making popularly elected future governments carry out the junta's 20-year National Strategy. Such a system could be a drag on government and shackle civilian administrations.

Another reason the military junta is seeking this extraordinary political regime is its desire to sustain stability and security. If the government is placed under the watchful eye of the upper house, it will be possible to block any future government from taking policy measures that could deepen a political rift in the public again. At a time when antagonism between supporters and opponents of Thaksin Shinawatra, which once led to serious bloodshed, has yet to be resolved, the military wants the upper house to act as a safety valve.

Even if a majority of Thais vote no on Aug. 7, there is no guarantee that an alternative draft constitution, one viewed as being more democratic, will come about. If the referendum is voted down, the present military regime will certainly stay longer and then quite likely impose a constitution of its own choosing. The generals would argue that democracy with such untrustworthy politicians is too fiddly and time consuming for Thailand at this stage in its political development.

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