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Why Thailand's political system isn't working

Democracy's biggest flaw, perhaps, is its tendency to force everyone to bite off more than they can chew. When an overwhelmed team runs a corporation, the worst-case scenario is bankruptcy for those concerned. When a group of people has to do everything "for" a country after winning an election, there is no limit to how bad things can get.

This is not an anti-democracy argument. This is an argument for some serious reconsideration of the orthodox belief that, in a democracy there must be only one winner who gets to do everything. The "requirements" are too many nowadays and the circumstances very different from the days when all that rulers needed to do was guard the walls and feed hungry mouths.

Pheu Thai may be good when it comes to welfare for the grass-roots but it may be bad at setting good ethical examples. The Democrats may be good at laying down education foundations but they may be bad at taking bold steps or handling public health. Chart Thai may be good at agricultural development but bad at setting visions for scientific development. Democracy is supposed to pull them together, accentuating the good and blocking the bad. But the actual situation has done anything but.

In our current system, Pheu Thai get to control the Justice Ministry, governing ethical standards, the Democrats oversee a time-sensitive infrastructure overhaul and Chart Thai lead scientific pioneering. There is no consideration paid to putting the right man in the right job, except maybe when it comes to the appointment of the finance minister.

And now, enter corruption. Over time, the "winner-does-all" arrangement has forged a "winner-gets-all" mentality. You want to win an election not out of the desire to serve, but because there's an ICT Ministry out there that can help your parallel businesses. You want to be in government because getting to oversee the agricultural sector will prove very lucrative. You win one election and the ICT and Agriculture ministries are yours, and it doesn't really matter whether you are really qualified to run them or not.

If democracy is the best there is, why shouldn't we take it to the extreme? Why not have separate elections for key sectors like education, agriculture, defence, foreign affairs, and so on? If we can't, tell me why.

The line between democracy and dictatorship gets very thin if a single election gives all the power to one person or one group of people. If you insist that Chalerm Yoobamrung head the Justice Ministry or Jatuporn Prompan be handed the Interior portfolio because their ultimate boss whose party has just won an election says so, it's dictatorship in disguise, no matter how you paint it.

It's dictatorship because it shuts the door on potentially better candidates. It's dictatorship because when the "boss" says Chalerm or Jatuporn is the most suitable, nobody can stop them from getting the job even if they have damning evidence of their unsuitability. And it's dictatorship because, if Chalerm or Jatuporn fails, the boss will stay safe. At least this is how Thai "democracy" has been going.

The "winner-gets-all-and-does-all" system may have worked in some countries, but in Thailand all it has delivered is a major rift which keeps on getting wider. There have been cases of really bad political performers and all-right performers who have been picked on. It's been too difficult to get rid of both types. The problem boils down to the fact that Thai democracy hangs on a single high-stakes game which delivers almost-absolute centralised power. Winning the election has become too important, no matter how important an election is in a democracy.

The democratic system "as we know it" may work if the power is centred in someone who is not divisive, who can make the best use of the nation's human resources and who can discard nepotism. Thailand is not equipped for such a democracy, where the winner rules unchallenged, picking the best person for each particular job.

We still need a conductor, some will argue. I'm not saying we don't. The conductor, however, must not get to choose every musician, dictate how to select instruments and decide how much money is needed to organise a concert. The conductor must focus on one single job - which is to produce the best performance.

Of course, it will be tough. Most conductors will settle for below-par musicians who don't have much ego and are easily controllable. This situation is, in fact, our chronic political syndrome. Either the conductors feel threatened by the best choices and discard them, or the best choices cannot come to help because they belong to other camps. The result: we end up with substandard conductors and musicians all at once.

There are two types of reform - one for the politicians and the other for the country. We can tell which is which by checking out whether a "reform" will help ease the burden on the conductor and improve the qualities of the musicians, and whether the "stakes" are thereby brought down to realistic levels.

It sounds romantic to say people are willing to die for democracy, but the truth is that most, if not all, "political" deaths have been for an unpolished "winner-does-all-and-gets-all" concept. One can die for an ideal, of course, but it pays to remember that too big of a bite can also choke you to death.


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