Make the new Senate a chamber for participatory politics (5 February 07)

Make the new Senate a chamber for participatory politics by Abhisit Vejjajiva 5 February 2007

  Make the new Senate a chamber for participatory politics by Abhisit Vejjajiva 5 February 2007

The Constitution-drafting process has begun in earnest.  From now on, the work of the drafting committee will be critical for the return of the country to democracy and normalcy. In order to do so effectively the committee and the Drafting Assembly should adhere to the following key principles:

- Speed so that the next General Elections can take place by the end of the year, as promised.
- Public participation in each and every step of the drafting process in order to ensure that the wishes of the people are reflected in the new constitution, keeping in mind that the drafted Constitution will be put to a Referendum

- Upholding fundamental democratic principles by making the new constitution at least as democratic and progressive as the previous one. This means keeping provisions on rights and participation, a system of strong checks and balances as well as an elected head of government.

Doing so would also help restore confidence and ease political tension. The CNS and the government must contribute too. Since they would be empowered to choose and amend any old constitution should the drafting assemblys version is not approved, they should make transparent their stance on the matter. After all, the referendum would only be meaningful if voters know all the alternatives and there is no better way for the CNS to prove their intention of restoring democracy and that they have no wish to hang on to power.

It has been suggested that the most difficult substantive issue facing the CDA is the issue pertaining to the Senate, the Achilles heel of the 1997 Constitution. Directly elected senators were expected to be non-partisan or politically neutral. This proved unrealistic and the Senate became a significant channel through which the government interfered with the working of independent organizations, hence stifling the mechanism of checks and balances.

Predictably, this has led the debate on the new senate to focus on whether the upper house should be appointed, selected or elected, a question which should be considered in conjunction with the role and responsibility of the senate on which there appears to be little or no debate.

I would therefore like to propose the following to resolve the issue.

1. Thailand should retain a bicameral system. Unicameralism, especially when coupled with a strong executive branch and party system, would debilitate the checks and balance function of the legislative branch of government. Nevertheless, the role of Upper Chamber in Parliament should not be the same as the Lower House in that it should not be involved in partisan politics since we are in a unitary state. Rather, it should be strictly legislative in nature; its role could include questioning government ministers, policy debates without a vote, and be part of a joint sitting to discuss important issues such as declarations of wars and signings of treaties.

2. The Senate should consist of knowledgeable individuals who can relate to the people. Whatever their qualifications, senators must be true representatives of the people and in tune with peoples needs and concerns. There is therefore no justification for an appointed Senate.

3. The Senate should be used to open up political space for participatory politics. When asked how the upper house can avoid being influenced by political parties; often the answer points to the direction of a selection process. Yet such a system creates problems. Selection without fairly detailed criteria is prone to favoritism and abuse. However, in the past, any drawn up set of criteria tends to result in a narrow selection from technocrats and academics, which would lead the Senate to become a House of bureaucrats. Even a relatively successful selection process, that of National Economic and Social Advisory Council, lacks the feel that members are representatives of the people. If one of the main objectives of the new Constitution is to develop and support participatory politics, the Senate should provide space for non-partisan representatives of the people. A selected Senate would be inconsistent with this.

4. An elected Senate is the answer but changes in its role and the electoral system are needed. Despite widespread criticism of the previous Senate, there was a group of senators who performed fairly well as independent representatives of people politics.  This was partly due to the system which only allowed voters a single vote in multi-member constituencies to create diversity. This principle should be kept and strengthened by the following.

4.1 Impose more restrictions on senatorial candidates. Individuals should be banned from running in consecutive races for the Upper and Lower House. As such, individuals seeking public office will be forced to decide whether they wish to operate in a partisan (lower house) or an independent (upper house) track of politics.

4.2 Allow senatorial candidates to campaign during elections. By not allowing senatorial candidates to campaign during elections, the 1997 Constitution had provided an unfair advantage to office seekers with name recognition or to relatives of known politicians, thereby encouraging nepotism. Apart from being an inherent right of office seekers, campaigning would allow the public to be aware of a candidates political stance and intentions.

4.3 Make constituencies bigger than provinces. This would help reduce the influence of local/national partisan politicians/families. Constituencies could be groups of provinces or regions, if a single constituency for the whole country is impractical.

4.4 Remove the senates powers to appoint individuals to independent agencies and to impeach. Political parties and governments would then have less of an incentive to interfere with the Upper House. Instead, the Senate should be given power to initiate legislations. This will attract issue politicians especially in areas where political parties and governments tend to overlook or find too sensitive politically.

In conclusion, my aforementioned proposal provides a solution on a much debated issue which is in line with democratic principles.  It is progressive in nature as it elevates participatory politics to another level. Yet it is pragmatic in that it recognizes the realities of Thailands political and social culture. It is certainly consistent with what should be the framework for the drafting of the new constitution to move Thai democracy forward while learning the lessons from the past