Curbing party leaders' influence

national September 29, 2014 01:00

By KRIS BHROMSUTHI
THE NATION

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Reform council to consider ways to limit power of demanding party backers



PROMINENT academics and researchers have targeted the influence that political party financiers have over MPs as a main area in political reform that needs to be changed, suggesting that financiers’ party contributions be capped. 

According to democratic principles, an MP’s duty is to represent his or her constituents, rather than take orders from the party leader or financiers – a trend that has caused severe damage to Thailand’s democratic system in recent history. 
 
A proposal to end this undue influence will be put forward to the National Reform Council (NRC) by the National Institute of Development Administration (NIDA) and Council of University Presidents of Thailand. (See graphic)
 
The NRC is tasked with drawing up a national reform framework, which will be handed over to the National Legislative Assembly, the Cabinet and National Council for Peace and Order, who will then give inputs to the Constitution Drafting Committee. 
 
News of the proposal, meanwhile, has met with mixed reactions from other academics and politicians. 
 
Chaiyan Chaiyaporn, a political scientist from Chulalongkorn University, agreed that steps should be taken to cut down the influence party leaders have over MPs, by letting candidates enter elections independently. He said this would also encourage political parties to grow “organically”, for instance by bringing together politicians who |share the same ideology. 
 
Attasit Pankaew, a political science lecturer at Thammasat University, said he wanted to see a better balance of power between party leaders and party members, who should be freed from overbearing influence. 
 
“MPs have to follow their party’s orders far too much,” he said. 
 
He also suggested that new political parties first run in local elections before entering the national arena. This way, a party will be built “from the ground up”, he said, adding that this would also allow candidates to be judged on their individual abilities and qualifications, rather than voters’ allegiance to a party. Also, he said, candidates would no longer be obligated to their party leaders. 
 
Another way of curbing this influence would be to hold primary elections a few months before general elections are held, so candidates can work towards winning approval from voters instead of party leaders. 
 
Is party discipline that bad?
 
Pheu Thai Party’s Udomdech Rattanasathien, meanwhile, said a party member’s need to go under a party’s banner was not related to money, but based more on strength. 
 
“Curbing a financier’s or leader’s influence on members by capping the funds is a mere illusion,” Udomdech said. 
 
He also disagreed with the notion that candidates should be allowed to run in elections without a party, saying this would create an unstable government that would need to dissolve Parliament frequently – a problem that occurred a few decades ago but was resolved by the 1997 Constitution. He added that the only way forward was to build a political system that promotes a strong party. 
 
“For the political field to be stable, we need stable political parties so that Parliament does not get dissolved frequently and governments can last the entire term before their performance is judged by the people in an election every four years,” Udomdech said. 
 
“We tried all sorts of rules and systems before we agreed to focus on creating strong parties and government. Why would we want to change that again?” 
 
Red-shirt leader and Pheu Thai member Weng Tojirakarn said NIDA’s proposal to cap financiers’ party funding was an “interesting suggestion that is worth considering”, as he agreed that party members should be allowed more independence in opinion and action. 
 
Weng said the notion of party members being obliged to follow their party’s consensus was not “wrong” as such, because members are aware of their party’s principles and policy before they join. He pointed out that if they did not agree with the party, they could always leave. 
 
“A political party is formed according to party members’ shared principles. Hence, it’s unfair to say a party member only follows the party line because they are on the payroll,” the red-shirt leader said. 
Democrat party spokesman Chavanond Intarakomalyasut, meanwhile, said he doubted that NIDA’s proposal to curb funding would effectively reduce financiers’ influence on party members.
 
“If a financier or leader wants to provide funding to a party member or give them a monthly salary or rewards, such transactions would not be disclosed to the public or any regulator. So I doubt if curbs can solve this problem,” he said. 
 
However, he agreed that it was necessary to impose tight controls on a party’s campaign funding, as it would be “better to solve the problem at its root”. 
 
Campaign funding
 
All candidates need campaign funding, he admitted, adding that to win, they need a lot of money, which is how they become indebted to financiers or party leaders. Hence, capping or regulating campaign spending would protect candidates from being obligated to their financiers and party leaders. 
 
He admitted that “there is no perfect solution that can solve all problems”, though he said it was important to lay strong foundations that enrich the democratic atmosphere in the future by taking measures such as strengthening education and the public sector.