A block to democ­racy and sta­bil­ity in Thai­land

The Phnom Penh Post - - WORLD -

THE ap­pointed se­nate has been de­signed to per­pet­u­ate Thai junta rule, but it could also un­der­mine it.

The process to select a new Se­nate has caused wide­spread dis­may among cit­i­zens des­per­ate for trans­parency and pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion in pol­i­tics.

Only 7,200 peo­ple from across the coun­try have ap­plied for posts in the up­per house, far fewer than the 10,000 ex­pected by the Elec­tion Com­mis­sion (EC). The fig­ure is es­pe­cially dis­ap­point­ing given the huge pub­lic bud­get of 1.3 bil­lion baht ($40 mil­lion) al­lo­cated for the se­lec­tion process.

Yet what­ever the num­ber of ap­pli­cants, the Se­nate se­lec­tion re­mains one of the most se­ri­ous mis­takes made by a govern­ment in Thai po­lit­i­cal his­tory. Rather than seek­ing qual­i­fied ex­perts to scru­ti­nise leg­is­la­tion with wis­dom, dig­nity and in­tegrity, the junta wants an obe­di­ent bloc to serve to per­pet­u­ate its power.

Worse still, rather than putting can- di­dates to a na­tional vote, the junta will hand­pick 250 nom­i­nees to sit in a Se­nate and over­see a demo­crat­i­cally elected lower cham­ber.

Ac­cord­ing to the Con­sti­tu­tion’s clauses for “demo­cratic” tran­si­tion, all mem­bers of the in­au­gu­ral Se­nate, whose term is five years, will be ap­pointed by the rul­ing Na­tional Coun­cil for Peace and Or­der (NCPO).

Of the 250 se­na­tors, 50 will be voted in by fel­low ap­pli­cants and 194 ap­pointed by a se­lec­tion com­mit­tee, while the six re­main­ing seats will go to the com­man­ders-in-chief of the Armed Forces, the Supreme Com­man­der of the Armed Forces, the De­fence Min­istry per­ma­nent sec­re­tary and the Na­tional Po­lice chief.

Their main task will be to scru­ti­nise bills be­fore they be­come law. But this Se­nate has also been de­signed to play a role in se­lect­ing the prime min­is­ter. If the lower house is un­able to reach agree­ment on a nom­i­nee af­ter the elec­tion, the char­ter em­pow­ers sena- tors to join the vote with MPs to select a prime min­is­ter.

This ar­range­ment de­liv­ers a se­vere blow to hopes for democ­racy, since it hands ap­pointed law­mak­ers the same power as elected MPs who have a man­date from the peo­ple.

A hand­picked Se­nate is hardly un­usual in Thai po­lit­i­cal his­tory. In fact it wasn’t un­til the 1997 Con­sti­tu­tion passed that Thai­land elected all se­na­tors. Typ­i­cally a mixed sys­tem of elec­tion and se­lec­tion has pre­vailed. But never has an ap­pointed Se­nate been handed the cru­cial role of help­ing pick the head of govern­ment.

Even with that power in the off­ing, fewer than ex­pected ap­plied.

For­mer con­sti­tu­tion drafter Chartchai na Chi­ang­mai said he thought the low num­ber of ap­pli­ca­tions was due to a lack of mo­ti­va­tion among would-be can­di­dates.

Many of them opted not to ap­ply be­cause it is the NCPO that will select 50 of the 200 can­di­dates short- listed by fel­low ap­pli­cants from 10 pro­fes­sions.

“They see no mo­ti­va­tion for them to ap­ply. They are scep­ti­cal [and see] that in the end the NCPO may not ap­point them,” Chartchai said.

Thanks to the low level of pub­lic par­tic­i­pa­tion and the opaque se­lec­tion process, the junta will no doubt find 250 se­na­tors who will back its ex­tended rule. Even more cru­cial, the junta has the vot­ers in its pocket needed to se­cure a new head of govern­ment. Along with the 250 Se­na­tors, the pro-junta par­ties need only win 125 seats in the lower house to in­stall their choice as the new prime min­is­ter of Thai­land.

But the bad news for the new govern­ment is that the Se­nate has no au­thor­ity to join the lower house in vot­ing to pass laws. Hence the first Se­nate since the 2014 coup will not only be un­demo­cratic, it will also jeop­ar­dise the sta­bil­ity of the new govern­ment.

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