Welcome to the fray, new senators

opinion March 31, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

New members of upper house could have their mettle tested early on with impeachment votes

The Senate has always been close to, if not right at, the centre of Thailand’s political strife. It’s no different for the current crisis, which has been featuring everything from corruption and hate propaganda to “elitist intervention” and the decades-old question of whether the “Upper House” should be made up entirely of elected members. Yesterday’s election of part of the Senate took place under the highly contentious concept that a directly-elected Senate may not be a cure-all for the country’s political ills.
In fact, everything about the Senate is controversial. Should senators be appointed? If so, who should appoint them? Or should all senators come from an election? If so, how can we prevent the possibility of them being co-opted by political parties, thus defeating their checks and balances mission? The debate has led to this extreme question: Are senators necessary in the first place?
Among the legal troubles hounding the Pheu Thai Party is one involving its effort to amend the Constitution so that the Senate would comprise only elected members. That effort hit a brick wall and in the process renewed the bitter debate on the role, origin and relevance of the upper chamber. And against this acrimonious political backdrop, yesterday’s poll has installed some new faces.
All we can say to them is, “Welcome to the fray”. And, perhaps, “We do hope you know what you will be doing.” The Senate is entrusted with impeachment powers and the authority to have a big say in the selection of members of independent organisations. This is why the way the Upper House is made up is politically important. There are claims that whoever controls the Senate along with the House of Representatives is ensured a long, stable and prosperous future in politics.
That a Senate speaker has been accused by the National Anti-Corruption Commission of being part of a conspiracy to change the structure of the Senate confirms how the Upper House has been deeply embroiled in the political crisis. Late last year, the Senate seemed set to approve the controversial amnesty bill passed by the Lower House, only to make a last-minute U-turn due to massive street protests.
Yesterday’s election is anything but a step toward solving Thailand’s mounting political problems. The Senate’s impeachment power will put it under an immediate spotlight. A decision one way or the other will have great repercussions and draw both compliments and sharp rebukes from bitterly divided Thais, not to mention international observers closing watching the country’s developments.
It’s not easy to ask senators to “do your job”, as the polarised nation has never agreed on what they are supposed to be doing. The Senate’s job description is part of the crux of the Thai crisis, to begin with. The members of the Upper House, ideally, have the responsibility to provide checks and balances, but the debate on that responsibility has been heavily dictated by political leanings.
Even the most “politically correct” tip – for the senators to think of the people’s interests only – is unlikely the get the same interpretation. To one camp, serving the country’s best interests equals “supporting democracy”, and everyone knows what that means in the Thai political context. To the other camp, “the people’s interests” does not necessary mean the interests of the party that wins a general election.
The initiation for the new senators will be fiery. But on the bright side, the Thai political crisis has given everyone plenty of opportunities to do some serious soul-searching. And the crisis certainly will give all the Senate newcomers a chance to prove their worth, whatever that represents.