Published on October 5, 2007
This depends on how we define democracy. One thing for sure is that we are going to have an executive branch that will enjoy less stability compared to the Thaksin era. An experiment with the 1997 Constitution, considered one of Thailand's best ever, has produced a disastrous outcome, ending in a coup. Now we have to embrace the reality of Thai-style politics.
On the first anniversary of the coup, ousted prime minister Thaksin wrote an article to congratulate himself and, of course, denounce the junta. Interestingly, he did touch on the 2007 Constitution. He wrote:
"The junta appointed a committee to draft a new constitution for Thailand, stacking it with hand-picked bureaucrats. The committee's top priority was to reduce the role of the Thai people and their elected representatives in national decision making. The constitution they produced needlessly reduces the size of the lower house of parliament to 480 from 500 members, the size of the Senate to 160 from 200 members, and redraws parliamentary districts in a manner designed to diminish the voting strength of the 35 provinces in northern and north-eastern Thailand that have been most strongly opposed to the coup.
"In addition, the new constitution strips the Thai people of the power to elect the Senate. Instead, senators will henceforth be appointed by unelected selection committees. The anti-democratic role of the Senate and the judiciary is amplified by features empowering the Senate to appoint heads of independent agencies and to remove the publicly elected prime minister."
Thaksin was half right. He did not mention the 1997 Constitution, which he played a key role in destroying.
The 1997 Constitution was drafted with people's participation. It was seen as a culmination of the trial and error of Thai democracy since 1932. The underlying idea of this constitution was to provide more stability to the executive branch so it could implement public policies before its term ended. The Constitution was embedded with a check and balance system, with the independent institutions acting as pillars to support the democratic process.
Thaksin was the first and last elected leader under the 1997 Constitution, which gave him unchecked power as the independent institutions were subdued under his centralisation. He exploited every loophole in the constitution to strengthen his grip on power. And he and his party got elected, largely with support from rural voters in the North and the Northeast. He always claimed that he played by the rules in the 1997 Constitution, which he did not write.
At issue, which has not been adequately discussed, was a political divide between the Thais who eat khao suay (normal rice) and the Thais who eat khao niew (sticky rice). The khao suay eaters represent the urban voters; the khao niew eaters rural voters. Their interests are not the same. Thaksin chose the khao niew eaters to win him the election. He gave them populist policies and at the same time enriched a small circle of big businesses with ties to government and the stock market.
The Thai elite and the Thai middle class were shocked by the disparity between the content of the 1997 Constitution and its practical outcome. The role of Parliament was downplayed. With 377 MPs, Thaksin did not have to show up at Parliament at all. During his six-year reign, he held parliament in contempt because the opposition could not lay a finger on him and the MPs under his control never broke ranks to vote with their consciences. He appeared in Parliament a dozen times at most. The opposition could not grill him because it could not muster enough votes to open a quorum.
In other words, the Thai elite and the Thai middle class resented the fact that the lower house was completely taken over by ban nok (which has a negative connotation for rural folk) MPs.
In the Senate, the situation was similar. The elite and the middle class realised that by requiring senators to come from the election, the 1997 Constitution favoured rural voters, who voted in the wives, children, relatives and cronies of their MPs.
Both the lower house and the Senate came under the control of ban nok representatives who were swayed by money politics.
And when Thaksin muzzled the media, the elite and the middle class felt they had no more room. The 2007 coup was partly a reflection of this urban/rural divide.
So when it was necessary to write a new constitution, the elite and middle class felt that voting at the ballot box did not equate to democracy in strict terms. They went on to draft the 2007 constitution to hand back power to bureaucrats, to provide balance against politicians elected by rural voters.
Of course, the 2007 Constitution is a setback to democracy if you are a purist. But it is a product of another phase of Thai political development, which seeks to create equilibrium by balancing out the interests of urban and rural voters. It is not a perfect constitution. We might revert to the old days of short-lived coalition governments and a lack of stability. But bear in mind that the Japanese are changing their prime minister once every two years now, and they are still doing all right.