June 11, 2014 00:00 By Tulsathit Taptim
General Prayuth Chan-ocha must realise that endearing himself to Thais is far harder than staging a coup. More difficult still than the charm offensive is how to deliver true reform, as he can only play the disciplinary, carrot-and-stick uncle with sincer
In other words, the chances of him eventually getting to proclaim “I did it!” are slimmer than him getting an earful of “I knew it!” or “We told you so”. This is a marriage of convenience in the extreme, so Prayuth shouldn’t get too carried away with all the plaudits in the aftermath of his latest TV address. Flowers always start it; hurled dishes or photo frames – hopefully not kitchen knives – always end it.
What should he do then? All the assemblies, committees and public forums are a textbook showcase for “We are working on reform, don’t you see?” But we have had countless numbers of those and look where we are now. Prayuth needs something special to make it work, a political version of a foolproof birthday and wedding anniversary reminder, and here’s my two cents:
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. A “winner takes all” democracy” is too much for Thailand. It makes the losers sour and the triumphant side do whatever is necessary to keep the status quo. It makes independent checks and balances untenable because people view this part of the system according to their political prejudice. Last but not least, this style of democracy is not totally democratic, at least over here.
It may work elsewhere in the world, but the “winner takes all” system only empowers the prime minister to name unqualified people for important Cabinet jobs in Thailand. It makes the interior portfolio overly important. It turns the Education Ministry into a place practically every politician avoids. It tempts the prime minister to double as defence minister, not for the sake of national security, but for his or her own job security. It fills the Justice Ministry with politicians who have anything but integrity. It links vast business interests – and hence the country’s political course – with one single general election.
Some say democracy is not just about “Let’s have a vote”. In Thailand, that is very true. “How” you vote is important. When a democracy is all about winning an election and what happens afterwards counts very little, that democracy is doomed, with or without conspiracies against it. We do hope Prayuth knows this, and will tackle the issue wholeheartedly. Contempt and doubts are, understandably, in abundance, and it’s very much up to him to prove the critics right or wrong.
The coup makers, now ruling Thailand under the name National Council for Peace and Order, have pledged broad political reform. But all will come to little or nothing if the ultimate concept of how the public mandate is exercised remains unchanged. Thailand needs a “more democratic democracy” – a system where voters do not pick someone who then picks everybody else. Voters should get to pick everyone who matters.
The benefits of a wholesale change to our system are obvious. No single party is equipped to do everything by itself. The Democrats may be too slow on foreign investment. The Pheu Thai Party may have too many conflicts of interests when it comes to telecom affairs. Chart Thai may be good for the agricultural sector but is never brilliant on scientific development. The pre-coup system gave the weakest links way too much credit while obscuring the strongest ones.
Can we have a system where all the key ministers are elected and Parliament is a real force to counter-balance them? All the “reformists” must figure that out, but all I can say is that we have tried everything else before. We have given the prime minister a lot of power, or a little less power. We have come up with what was supposed to be a great system of checks and balances, only for it to be deemed an “elitist tool” hell-bent on “undermining democracy”. We have empowered Parliament to remove the prime minister and Cabinet members, only for it to serve as the rubber-stamp of the executive branch. We have tried a directly elected Senate, appointed Senate and something in between. All failed.
If it remains a game of “winners-take-all”, Thailand is bound to get a new Thaksin, a new Suthep and then a new NCPO. Maybe not right away, but we can count on it to happen. “Power has to be taken” is a dictatorial mentality that was pervading our “democratic” system. Democracy is about sharing power, whether we actually like it or not.
How can we be sure the proposed change won’t produce another rice-pledging scheme or remove another Thawil Pliensri? Can such change eradicate high-profile tax evasions? Can it stop constitutional schemes aimed at serving vested, not national, interests? Where are we going to put the prime minister? Last but not least, will such change prevent another Prayuth staging another coup?
I can’t answer all those questions, but here’s my own: What have we got to lose?