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Thailand deserves better democracy

The anti-government protesters want better democracy, not less democracy. Hence they are calling for an overhaul of the political system that will put an end to widespread corruption. Failure to force reforms will leave the country in the grip of its vicious cycle of money politics, abuse of power by elected representatives, and corruption in high government. Meanwhile, the next election will only see a bigger flood of money used to retain political control.

The importance of elections in a democracy is not doubted. But can we say that Thai elections are free of intimidation, vote-buying, fair to all candidates and "clean"?

More important to democracy is legitimacy. The outcome of an election must be accepted by the general public, so that those chosen to form a new government achieve widespread recognition and respect. Election winners are entrusted with the privilege of exercising the sovereign power of the people for the people and the country. This does not mean they can do whatever they want with that power.

Winning an election is just the start of the democratic process. How elected representatives then use their position determines their legitimacy to rule. If they abuse their power through corrupt practices to enrich themselves or to advance the narrow interests of their financiers, then they lose legitimacy.

In Vietnam and China, elections are a matter of formality within their respective ruling communist parties. Can we say then that the Vietnamese and Chinese governments lack legitimacy? Certainly not. For each of them is still seen by its populace as good enough in promoting public and national interests, without any blatant abuse of power.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Yingluck Shinawatra administration and her ruling Pheu Thai Party. Pheu Thai's abuse of its majority in the lower House in recent weeks has been widely reported. Its amnesty bill with hidden provisions to whitewash corruption charges against party financiers, including Yingluck's fugitive brother Thaksin Shinawatra, was halted in the Senate amid growing whistle-blowing protests. Next, the bill for an all-elected Senate was passed by both Houses, before being struck down by the Constitutional Court as an illegal bid to change the political system. Altogether 383 Pheu Thai MPs, including Yingluck and Pheu Thai leader and Interior Minister Charupong Ruangsuwan, plus pro-Thaksin senators now face an investigation by the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC). If found guilty, these lawmakers will be banned from politics for five years and prosecuted for abusing their power.

Pheu Thai's leadership vehemently criticised the Constitutional Court and openly denounced its decision. Such defiance was yet another serious violation of the charter, Article 216 of which states: "The decision of the Constitutional Court shall be deemed final and binding on the National Assembly [Parliament], Council of Ministers [Cabinet], Courts and other State organs."

Yingluck initially claimed she had nothing to do with the legislative work of her party. That may be true. But she cannot deny political responsibility, since she was nominated by Pheu Thai, and many party members serve in her Cabinet. This is why protesters are now demanding that Yingluck relinquish her current role as caretaker premier. If she calls it quits, or if the NACC finds her guilty, she will also have to stand down, leaving a "political vacuum". Then, Article 7 and Article 3 of the Constitution are applicable.

Article 7 says that for a situation not covered by any provisions in the Constitution, consideration of a solution shall be based on the convention of government in which the monarch is head of state. Article 3 states that sovereign power belongs to the Thai people. The monarch as head of state shall exercise such power through the National Assembly, the Council of Ministers and the Courts in accordance with charter provisions.

In other words, in a "political vacuum", the King can appoint a replacement caretaker premier. This is what the protesters are hoping to see. And they hope that such an interim leader will initiate major political reforms before the new general election - perhaps through a "people's assembly".

This is a practical solution to a political crisis that is uniquely Thai.

At stake is the future of the country. For evidence, just see Thailand's ranking in Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, which this year plummeted to 102nd among 177 countries, a sharp fall from 88th last year. A bill to enable the government to borrow Bt2 trillion (about US$61 billion) for infrastructure investments until 2020 was rammed through Parliament and is now being contested in the Constitutional Court. More big-ticket government spending involves borrowing Bt350 billion for flood prevention and water management.

If money politics continue as usual, then elected politicians can easily cash in on these massive government projects. If they are modest and just skim off 10 per cent off the infrastructure projects, they will be $6.3 billion richer. In fact the going rate for kickbacks in Thai public projects is reputed to be much higher, at between 20 and 40 per cent. The stark consequences of such massive corruption in Thailand are easy to find. Just take a look at Suvarnabhumi Airport, which was shabbily built during the Thaksin administrations (2001-2006), and compare it with Singapore's plush Changi.

But now a significant segment of the otherwise passive silent majority of Thais has woken up and is taking a stand. Enough is enough. No more money politics. Thailand deserves better democracy.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a visiting research fellow at the Asean Studies Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Views stated are his personal opinions.


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