Autocratic rule has outlasted its welcome as we head towards election a return to democratic norms
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has never been aware of the damage his special powers are doing to the principle of rule of law.
Exercising those powers, granted him by Article 44 of the provisional constitution, also violated the spirit of reform as well as the norms and traditions of governance – most notably the system of checks and balances.
The junta chief has wielded his autocratic override freely, almost as if he were addicted to the power it confers. Described as efficient and iconic, Article 44 is the tool invoked by the junta – or National Council for Peace and Order, as it is officially known – to place legislative, administrative and judicial powers directly in the hands of General Prayut.
Legally speaking, Article 44 belongs to the interim charter and so should have been defunct as soon as the new charter came into force. But the junta prolonged its life with a passage in the 2017 Constitution granting the NCPO head the same status and powers until the next government is in place.
Prayut has made a slew of orders under his special powers, enforcing government reshuffles, establishing ad hoc bodies for various matters, and even stripping the police rank of Thaksin Shinawatra, the junta’s No 1 enemy.
Bureaucrats and academics have hailed Article 44 as a magic bullet for every problem, pleading with Prayut to pull the trigger every time procedural norms block their duties.
Speeding up the snail’s pace of bureaucracy is a commendable goal, but the temptation to fire at will has been too much for Prayut. Decisions on whether to exercise special powers under the new constitution are mostly down to Prayut and his deputy in legal affairs Wissanu Krea-ngam. Sometimes they come out of the blue, sometimes the NCPO brainstorms to shape the orders ahead of the weekly Cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
The orders have also created problems for the junta-led administration. A controversy in the Labour Ministry surfaced last week when Prayut exercised his special power to demote the Employment Department director-general Varanon Peetiwan after claims he had made slow progress on the migrant workers register. The demotion had repercussions, as the Labour Minister, General Sirichai Distakul, and three others in his team made surprise resignations to show solidarity with Varanon.
Rather than looking into possible failures in the normal procedure, Prayut a day later exercised his special powers to set up a committee to bypass the Labour Ministry and get the job done. But of course this is no guarantee the register of migrant workers will be completed any more quickly. It will also leave a potentially damaging legacy in the bureaucracy. The migrant workers will be here long after Prayut’s administration has stepped down. What will the Labour Ministry do when faced with similar problems under a normal government?
The one-man-show style of governing serves the country ill at a time of reform in preparation for a return to democracy and normal elected government.
The use of such power also undermines the spirit of the new supreme law, whose Article 77 stipulates that new legislation must be aired at hearings attended by all related parties and must to be accessible to the public. This has the potential to balance the power of Article 44, but Article 77 has never been used in this way under the junta regime.
If the junta chief is serious about ongoing reform, he must lay aside his absolute powers in favour of normal procedures and systems to resolve problems on the road to democracy. We have supposedly about a year before an election to form a new government. Now is the time for the prime minister to return Thailand’s governance, with its checks and balances, back to some semblance of normality. Otherwise, rather than leaving a positive legacy, his coup and reforms will place Thailand even deeper in jeopardy.