Why Thai­land voted in favour of an­other con­sti­tu­tion

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - NIGEL GOULD-DAVIES news­room@mm­times.com Nigel Gould-Davies teaches at Mahi­dol Uni­ver­sity In­ter­na­tional Col­lege in Thai­land, and is an as­so­ciate fel­low of Chatham House.

AMAN walks into a book­store and asks for a copy of the con­sti­tu­tion. “We don’t sell pe­ri­od­i­cal lit­er­a­ture,” replies the man­ager. This joke dates to 1958, when France passed the Fifth Re­pub­lic con­sti­tu­tion.

So spare a thought for Thai vot­ers, who on Au­gust 7 ap­proved the coun­try’s 20th con­sti­tu­tion since the end of ab­so­lute monar­chy in 1932. In fact, Thai­land has changed con­sti­tu­tions on aver­age ev­ery 4.2 years, about as fre­quently as other coun­tries change gov­ern­ments.

If cit­i­zens don’t agree with the con­sti­tu­tion, gov­ern­ment has a prob­lem.

But while Thai­land’s ex­pe­ri­ence may be ex­cep­tional, there’s a huge global prin­ci­ple here, one that af­fects es­tab­lished and emerg­ing democ­ra­cies alike: How much power should elected au­thor­i­ties wield?

A con­sti­tu­tion sets the rules that gov­ern how the game of pol­i­tics is played. Above all, it de­fines how coun­tries choose po­lit­i­cal lead­ers, how these lead­ers gov­ern and the scope of their author­ity. A sta­ble democ­racy com­bines civic con­sen­sus over these rules with po­lit­i­cal com­pe­ti­tion within them.

The le­git­i­macy of a con­sti­tu­tion en­sures that, win or lose, ev­ery­one ac­cepts the out­come of an elec­tion and the de­ci­sions of a new gov­ern­ment. If a sig­nif­i­cant group ceases to ac­cept the rules, civil con­flict and break­down of author­ity are likely to fol­low.

But Thai­land, more than any other coun­try, has per­sis­tently failed to se­cure a con­sen­sus on its rules of the game. Since the 1970s, rapid mod­erni­sa­tion has ex­ac­er­bated this fail­ure by throw­ing up new so­cial forces to chal­lenge the es­tab­lished or­der. A ris­ing ur­ban mid­dle class – and more re­cently an in­creas­ingly as­sertive ru­ral ma­jor­ity – has de­manded par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics and ac­cess to re­sources. These groups have met with re­sis­tance from en­trenched in­ter­ests and in­sti­tu­tions.

Thai­land con­tin­ues to fine-tune its rules of democ­racy.

Since 2001 this color-coded con­fronta­tion of “yel­low shirts” (roy­al­ist es­tab­lish­ment) and “red shirts” (the pop­ulist op­po­si­tion) has deep­ened. The ru­ral ma­jor­ity mo­bilised by Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra, prime min­is­ter from 2001 to 2006, has re­peat­edly re­turned gov­ern­ments only to be re­moved by coups or other de­vices (in­clud­ing dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion for host­ing a cook­ing show). Thai­land has be­come caught in a “Ground­hog Day” of elec­tion-coup-con­sti­tu­tion-elec­tion.

The mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment in power since the May 2014 coup drafted this lat­est con­sti­tu­tion, which tries to re­store demo­cratic elec­tions while con­strain­ing fu­ture demo­cratic gov­ern­ments. It does so by hem­ming in elected author­ity with un­elected in­sti­tu­tions and other de­vices. For ex­am­ple, the con­sti­tu­tion adds an ap­pointed up­per cham­ber and the pos­si­bil­ity of an un­elected prime min­is­ter. A range of bod­ies, filled with “good peo­ple”, as they are known in Thai­land, is also em­pow­ered to step in and over­ride gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions.

The deep po­lar­i­sa­tion of Thai pol­i­tics means the new con­sti­tu­tion is un­likely to en­joy the con­sen­sus it re­quires in or­der to last. The coun­try does not seem likely to es­cape its ver­sion of “Ground­hog Day”.

What are the op­tions for fine-tun­ing the prac­tice of democ­racy?

Thai­land’s ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers clues to the prospects for democ­racy else­where in Asia, where elites face grow­ing pop­u­lar de­mands for par­tic­i­pa­tion. As the risks and costs of re­sist­ing change rise, gov­ern­ments have three op­tions.

1) A phased-in democ­racy: The ap­proach used in 19th-cen­tury Western democ­ra­cies was to ex­pand par­tic­i­pa­tion grad­u­ally through con­trolled widen­ing of the fran­chise. But this op­tion is not avail­able in the 21st cen­tury. With a hand­ful of ex­cep­tions, mostly in the Mid­dle East, the fran­chise is now all-or-noth­ing. Vot­ing rights can no longer be granted se­lec­tively. Most non-democ­ra­cies al­ready grant nom­i­nal uni­ver­sal suf­frage in any case, though the elec­tions them­selves may be mean­ing­less.

2) Free elec­tions, with fal­si­fied re­sults: A more re­cent elite strat­egy is elec­toral au­toc­racy – the ap­pear­ance, but not re­al­ity, of demo­cratic elec­tions. This is achieved through the sys­tem­atic use of “ad­min­is­tra­tive re­sources” to skew and, if nec­es­sary, fal­sify, the elec­tion out­come. These meth­ods work best where states are strong and civil so­ci­ety un­der-re­sourced, as in much of the for­mer Soviet Union.

But this ap­proach has risks, es­pe­cially when dig­i­tally em­pow­ered and con­nected cit­i­zens can de­tect and pub­li­cise fraud more ef­fec­tively than ever. In re­cent years, mass protests against ma­nip­u­lated elec­tions have led to gov­ern­ment over­throw in Ukraine, Ge­or­gia, Ser­bia and else­where.

3) Free elec­tions, but reel in gov­ern­ment author­ity: A third strat­egy is to al­low largely free and fair elec­tions but con­strain the scope of demo­cratic author­ity. Elites thereby hope to sat­isfy mass de­mands for elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion while pro­tect­ing their own in­ter­ests. This is what Thai­land will look like un­der the new 2016 con­sti­tu­tion.

And this was the ap­proach taken in neigh­bour­ing Myan­mar where, fol­low­ing last year’s his­toric elec­tion, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Na­tional League for Democ­racy now gov­erns within a frame­work de­signed by the pre­vi­ous regime to en­trench mil­i­tary in­flu­ence. This could also prove a model for elite re­sponses to grow­ing pres­sures else­where, in­clud­ing Viet­nam, Laos and per­haps one day even China.

The scope of demo­cratic gov­er­nance has be­come a live is­sue in well es­tab­lished, sta­ble Western democ­ra­cies, too. Here, this scope has been nar­row­ing for decades as gov­ern­ments have ceded power to the in­sti­tu­tions and prac­tices of glob­al­i­sa­tion.

These con­straints on demo­cratic de­ci­sion-mak­ing come not from “good peo­ple” rep­re­sent­ing elites, but from “ex­perts” – tech­nocrats, un­elected in­sti­tu­tions and mar­kets – that pur­port to know bet­ter than cit­i­zens do how to achieve their in­ter­ests. A reap­praisal from be­low is now un­der way. The theme of “tak­ing back con­trol”, which framed the Brexit cam­paign, res­onates across the Euro­pean Union – and in the United States.

A com­mon ques­tion un­der­lies all these con­cerns about democ­racy in East and West alike. Where should the bound­ary be­tween demo­cratic and non-demo­cratic author­ity be drawn? In non-democ­ra­cies, this will be ne­go­ti­ated be­tween self-pro­tect­ing elites and pop­u­la­tions de­mand­ing greater in­clu­sion. In democ­ra­cies, it will be ne­go­ti­ated be­tween elite ben­e­fi­cia­ries of glob­al­i­sa­tion and pop­u­la­tions that value na­tional au­ton­omy more highly.

Posed in dif­fer­ent ways in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, this is­sue of the proper scope of elected author­ity is now the most im­por­tant ques­tion fac­ing democ­racy around the world.

Photo: EPA

A Thai sol­dier casts his bal­lot dur­ing a con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum at a polling sta­tion out­side an army bar­racks in Bangkok on Au­gust 7.

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