When the Senate undermines checks and balances

opinion April 03, 2014 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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The National Election Commission (NEC) set the target for voter turnout in last Sunday's Senate election at 70 per cent. The actual turnout was 42.5 per cent. The previous election in 2008 registered a turnout of 55.6 per cent.

What’s worse, the number of Bangkokians who showed up to cast their ballots amounted to only 28 per cent.
The number of “no vote” ballots exceeded 2.2 million, or about 11.8 per cent, while the number of spoiled ballots was 5.15 per cent (960,000).
How does one explain such deplorable apathy towards the election? You can blame the ongoing political chaos. You can say that some of the candidates were little known. You can even cite the NEC’s lack of public promotion for the shockingly low interest.
Doesn’t the Thai public realise that senators play a vital role in the national political process? Perhaps not all voters are aware of the fact, but most people certainly have some inkling that the upper House may be able to help break the political deadlock. But that could only happen if voters were certain that those elected to the Senate were “independent” enough to work out a political solution for the country.
That, alas, isn’t the case. The fact that the turnout was so disappointingly low stemmed from one very important reason: The voters don’t believe the senators can play the role specified for them in the Constitution: To serve as checks and balances against the House of Representatives. Worse, most believe that MPs of the lower House can influence members of the Senate because the senators relied on their political parties’ support to get elected.
When the results of the Sunday’s Senate election were announced, it was clear that the same pattern as that seen in the lower House elections had emerged: The North and Northeast were captured mostly by pro-government candidates while the South went the other way. One local newspaper ran a huge front-page headline the following morning: “Thaksin Seizes Senate”.
Rightly or wrongly, the story reflects what quite a few political analysts believe to be the case.
Senators aren’t supposed to be “politically affiliated”. That’s what the charter says. The reality is different. With so many of the elected senators closely associated one way or the other with the existing political parties, the battle that has been fought in the lower House and on the streets will break out in the upper House yet again.
Senators’ duties as stipulated by the Constitution are to endorse those nominated to such important agencies as the Anti-Corruption Commission, the Constitutional Court and a host of other “independent bodies” with highly influential roles to play to keep the executive branch from exercising excessive power.
But experience in the past few years has confirmed the worst suspicions. None of the attempted impeachments against senior politicians in Parliament and the Cabinet has succeeded. For one thing, the Constitution requires agreement from three-fifths of the total 150 senators to pass an impeachment motion. That means 90 of the 150 senators must stand united to pass the proposed move. That has never happened and won’t do so any time soon.
That means the upper House simply isn’t in a position to throw out corrupt politicians. Neither can it serve as a check-and-balance mechanism against political abuse. On the contrary, it is clear that in some cases, the senators closely affiliated to the powers-that-be have served to help whitewash corrupt politicians and political appointees.
Recent history stands witness to this ugly fact. When the Pheu Thai Party pushed through the controversial all-embracing amnesty bill that would have pardoned even the most corrupt politicians, present and past, the Senate, dominated by pro-government members, promptly rushed the draft legislation through, sparking the massive street demonstrations that transformed into the People’s Democratic Reform Council (PDRC) movement.
Proper checks and balances means that if you get 51 per cent of the vote, you don’t get your way 100 per cent of the time. That, however, doesn’t seem to be the guiding principle of the ruling party.