Beauty and travesty of censure

Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha attends a no-confidence debate at the Parliament in Bangkok, Thailand, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

Here’s a simple question: Who was the last Cabinet member to be ousted in a no-confidence vote? The answer is “Don’t torture your brain” because everyone has survived no-confidence voting since Thailand ended absolute monarchy and embraced constitutional monarchy some nine decades ago.

There is hope things will change this time. But Thammanat Prompao dethroning Prayut Chan-o-cha can be the mother of all ironies. Thammanat was once a censure target of the opposition himself, and to imagine him in a government led by Pheu Thai and Move Forward is absurd. Then again, what drives Thammanat is Cabinet glory and nothing less.

Thailand has seen more than 40 censure debates in its parliamentary history. The governments won every voting. (Voting was canceled a few times for such reasons as motions being “unconstitutional”, House dissolution or prime ministerial resignation.)

Proponents of censure say it is truly capable of effecting huge political changes. It’s like a “mirror” that reflects ill deeds that otherwise would not have been exposed at all. Skeptics say distorted images are all people get lately, especially in a cut-throat political environment.

Perhaps the skeptics’ biggest argument is that while censure can be useful for such “grey area” things as taxation or casino legalization, it is too tedious if not downright ineffective for issues that require immediate action like graft or other crimes. Moreover, the “mirror” can be outsmarted, like when Cabinet members were transferred out of the “hot spots” before Parliament can start debating their alleged inefficiency or malfeasance.

What can be good or bad is censure’s ability to give importance to individual MPs and small parties. Just as they can do the right thing for the right reason, they can also do the wrong thing for the wrong reason. This is in addition to them doing the right thing for the wrong reason, which can be bad in the long run.

A somewhat ironic showdown happened in the 1990s. First, opposition leader Banharn Silapa-archa torpedoed the Chuan Leekpai government with a censure onslaught that forced a House dissolution and thus canceled voting. Then the Democrat Party initiated censures which the Banharn government barely overcame but the prime minister had to call it a day eventually as a result.

For basically every censure, there have been politicians like Thammanat _ people whom you hate to love, whom you want to turn a blind eye to if they are on your side, and who can make your blood boil if they are on the other. More often than not, the news would focus on them and their bargaining powers rather than evidence laid bare on the parliamentary floor. Winning or losing depends on them, not the severity of the crimes.

When “defectors” are away, partisan politics comes into play, and the irony can be as big.

Countries have adopted their own ways of dealing with politicians deemed corrupt, or criminal, or being threats to national security. Thailand, under a much-lauded “People’s Charter” promulgated in 1997, introduced the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Constitutional Court as well as a special section in the Criminal Court to handle political office holders. America has impeachment, although the measure is reserved for the highest rulers.

The attempt to impeach Trump is more or less like a censure. But if the former president was as bad as his rivals said he was, why put him in a process plagued with partisan politicking? Why can’t allege attempts to upend a political system and destroy America’s democracy _ serious charges by any means _ be put before independent judges?

Censure, as they say, is something as good as a democracy can get. It is designed to bring to light wrongdoings while protecting politicians who must be under constant attack at the same time. However, certain wrongdoings in the political realm can be worse than what’s happening elsewhere.

Prayut has survived three censures since 2020, winning 272, 272, and 264 votes respectively. Will he survive the fourth? Thammanat’s defection is a big part of the eerie backdrop, but the government must be looking for “cobras” on the other side as well.

If the unthinkable and unprecedented _ Prayut’s loss to be exact _ happen, someone will laud the “beauty” of censure. If he wins, the same “someone” can decry a travesty. It’s the way things are.

By Tulsathit Taptim



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