Parties, MPs and the 90-day rule: Empower the People, not politicians. (12 February 07)

Parties, MPs and the 90-day rule: Empower the People, not politicians. by Abhisit Vejjajiva 12 February 2007

  Parties, MPs and the 90-day rule: Empower the People, not politicians. by Abhisit Vejjajiva 12 February 2007

The last couple of weeks have seen numerous suggestions concerning the restructuring of Parliament under the new Constitution such as reducing the number of MPs, allow MPs to run as independents, changing the electoral system etc. Since the Lower House is at the heart of a functioning Parliamentary system, it is important to treat the issue in a systematic way and consistency with fundamental principles of democracy must be ensured. Too often we see proposals that are piecemeal and many suggestions today appear to be an overreaction to Thaksinocracy and the TRT party.

Thailand has adopted a Parliamentary system with a Constitutional Monarch. In such a system, the Head of Government is not directly elected. Rather, he or she is chosen by and from an elected House of Representatives. Therefore, the government comes from and is directly responsible to the House. It needs a working parliamentary majority in order to retain stability. The will of the people is therefore reflected in government policy through the elections of MPs..

Why Members of Parliament should be required to be a member of a political party?

For the above reasons, political parties inevitably become the core of the system. They perform the important role of bringing together like-minded politicians in an organized and systematic manner to present alternatives to the voters by formalizing their ideologies and translating them into policies. When electoral candidates are required to be members of political parties, they are obliged to adopt a concrete and pre-determined position on (i) who they will choose as Prime Minister, (ii) which policies they will support and (iii) where they stand on important issues. Political party affiliation thus benefits voters because it makes it easier for voters to make rational decisions based on transparent alternatives and binds the MPs to the will of the people. Of course, party affiliation does reduce an MPs autonomy in exchange for the above benefits and government stability.
Allowing independent MPs is often suggested to make Parliamentarians more autonomous. Yet doing so comes at a cost of ruining the mechanisms of the main system. If a number of MPs can choose to vote in Parliament in any way they like without a binding political position, not only could this lead to chaos, but the translation of the Will of the People into policies and direction for the country through elections become extremely difficult, if not impossible. It would mean voters power would be transferred directly into the hands of the MPs immediately after Election Day. This analysis is borne out in Thailands past experience. When MPs were not required to be members of political parties, a number of them used to engage in endless bargaining for their own gains. A similar experience took place in local politics at the provincial or municipal level with independent councilors especially when the Head of the Executive was not directly elected.
If the new Constitution does not require MPs to be affiliated with political parties, democracy in Thailand would take a big step backwards. If we want to create space for independent politicians, we should do so through an elected Senate and putting in safeguards that senators maintain their role as non-partisan representatives of the people.

The '90-day rule' should be maintained

If party affiliation strengthens MPs accountability to the people in a Parliaments lifetime, party-switching in the past is often done to escape accountability when new elections are called. A Constitution that does not discourage party switching only encourages political parties to engage in power politics rather than pursue a strategy based on policy and ideology. Politicians then change parties simply to win the next election, conveniently erasing their political past. This has impeded the institutionalization of political parties in Thai politics.  The problem has worsened in recent years with the growth of money politics with many politicians switching parties in return for financial rewards.

The drafters of the 1997 Constitution designed the 90-day rule' in order to put an end to this. Unfortunately, with abuses of the 1997 and other factors such as party mergers, the rise of a dominant  family-owned party, as well as other provisions aimed at strengthening those in power (separating MPs from Ministers, the Party List system, protection of the Prime Minister from censure motions) the 90-day rule is often seen in negative light. The problems created should be tackled at their roots. For instance, apart from scrapping certain provisions which made the executive branch too powerful, it is high time to tackle money politics seriously by regulating political parties and politicians incomes and expenses. The 90-day rule itself, however, should be kept to strengthen the institutionalization and accountability of parties. This will force politicians to decide responsibly as to which parties they should join. All this will again contribute to the empowerment of people vis-à-vis politicians because weak political parties and governments due to strong bargaining power of individual politicians merely take power away from voters to politicians.,

Make room for exceptions

Despite its obvious benefits, there are some circumstances where the 90-day rule should not apply. Experience suggests at least three following cases.

First, the 90-day rule should not be applicable to first-time candidates. In any given election, the pool of political candidates should be cast as wide as possible in order to increase diversity and options for the voters. Applying the rule to outsiders unnecessarily leads to more monopolization of politics by existing politicians.

Second, the rule should not be imposed upon party members who have deep ideological clashes with their party and are prepared to let the people decide. In the past, if MPs had voluntarily chosen to leave their party, they would automatically lose their parliamentary status as well as lose their seat because they cannot contest the by-election. This means no parliamentarian has left his or her party despite strong disagreements. As such, any sitting MP prepared to resign from his or her party and give up his or her seat should be allowed to join a new one in order to contest in a by-election.
Third, currently, the Party Leader often has the power not to field an MP at the last minute, leaving that MP with no political future. There should be a provision requiring every party to swiftly reconfirm that MPs would be fielded in the event of House Dissolution. Any MP denied the opportunity  to run should be allowed to join another party and run. 

These proposals should be sufficient to protect the role and rights of MPs without affecting the prospects for political party development in Thailand. They are based on the fundamental principle that the will of the people must come first in a democracy. The new Constitution must advance this principle and Thai democracy. Lets empower the people, not the politicians.