The direct election of provincial governors has been seen as a slim possibility, despite calls from various sectors of society over many years.
Opponents of such a move cite national security and unity as reasons that have blocked this from happening, although others suggest the real reason behind opposition to the idea is that bureaucrats want to retain power and do not trust or are suspicious about letting “people govern themselves”.
Nevertheless the idea has some strong supporters. Even the military has floated a proposal for the election of provincial governors and the former are now senior Interior Ministry officials. Meanwhile, the Office of the Permanent Secretary for Defence recently suggested electing governors as a reform proposal.
Udom Tumkosit, a National Reform Council member for local administration reform, said earlier this month he would push a proposal at the National Reform Council for provincial governors to be elected.
People’s Democratic Reform Committee leader Suthep Thaugsuban also raised the idea during the street protests against the previous government early this year.
The idea for decentralisation of power is not completely new to Thailand. Voters in Bangkok have the right to elect their governor. People in other provinces may not have such a right but they can vote for the chief of the provincial administrative organisation (PAO). People in rural areas also have the power to elect leaders for their tambon administrative organisation (TAO).
However, these local administrations have no real authority, while many overlap with ruling units under the Interior Ministry. There are no clear boundaries in the scope of responsibility, for example, between the provincial governor who represents the central government, and the PAO chief, who is elected by locals.
One idea is to scrap the elected local administrative organisations, leaving only central authority via the provincial governor, while others say provincial governors should be elected from among local residents.
The notion of provincial governor elections is impossible, said Trakoon Meechai, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University. He suggested an alternative decentralisation blueprint that preserves appointed provincial governors, but sees administrative power completely transferred to elected municipalities.
“The junta has genuine concern for security if too much power is transferred from the central government to the people, especially in border provinces,” Trakoon said.
Decentralisation means letting people govern themselves and managing their own resources by transferring the administrative power from the central government to locals.
Apinan Puakpong, an experienced district chief from Bang Bua Thong district in Nonthaburi, said the presence of central authority throughout the country was necessary to maintain national peace and order. He said having appointed governors replaced by elected ones would greatly threaten peace and order.
“Look what has happened in recent years; people have too much freedom,” said the district chief, pointing to recent political crises.
A TAO member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the reason the military might not welcome the idea was because it did not want political parties to become too powerful.
“With election for governorship, political parties might have complete control over those provinces where their candidates were elected. It would be difficult for central authority to control,” he said.
“Some Interior Ministry officials may not oppose the idea of election of a local administration chairman or mayor, but definitely not the election of provincial governors,” said Trakoon. “If they could reserve the copyrights of provincial governorship nametags, they would have already done so!”
The central government also does not like the decentralisation idea because it would lose administrative power, he said.
Former Pheu Thai MP Chaowalit Vichayasut said he believed the power of central administrators should remain because abolishing it might cause serious conflict and resistance from public organisations.
“The country is already in complex political conflict; let’s not add any further complications,” he said.
Government officials do not trust people's decision making
Trakoon said: “Most public officials distrust... people’s decision-making, or in elected politicians chosen by the people.”
Apinan, the Bang Bua Thong district chief, said that although power decentralisation was a good idea, he was less than convinced it was practical. “At village meetings, for example, [most] people do not really contribute or engage in any of the local administration affairs. They just come to listen and are more concerned about returning home to boil their rice for dinner,” he said.
Apinan said only a few elected local administrators were capable, well-trained, and ethical, in comparison to central administrative officials. Many elected local administrative members had questionable backgrounds or were backed by local influential groups.
Trakoon suggested an alternative reform proposal – that the public sector should give more administrative and decision making power to local administrators, but only for local issues. He suggested the governors’ main responsibility should be reduced to local administration affairs – for example, to regulate against corruption or local administrators’ ability to look after the people.