11 July 2024

Over the past few days, three prominent political figures talked about proposed constitutional amendment. They may disagree on the timing, but an unspoken consensus is that it was no use tackling the present charter without addressing the Senate question.

The trio include a belligerent one, a calm one and a controversial one. Phumtham Wechayachai, a key member and top strategist of the Pheu Thai Party, vowed an all-out opposition effort this year, both inside and outside Parliament, to make the Constitution a “fairer” one. House Speaker Chuan Leekpai said the Senate, despite all its flaws, can do some good for Thailand. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who keeps people guessing about his political leaning, made a characteristically ambiguous remark that praised the military on one hand and backed the “pro-democracy” movement on the other.

Technically, it’s very hard to contain the present Senate and a lot harder _ virtually impossible in fact _ to erase it, as any proposed amendment will need to be approved by the chamber. Politically, debate about virtues _ or lack thereof _ of the Senate has hounded Thailand for decades. The country has tried practically everything _ unelected Senate, elected Senate, “indirect election” and even unicameral parliamentary system _ but none of them has satisfied everyone or produced efficient political results.

House speaker Chuan has, rather surprisingly, made a strong argument for the “upper Chamber.” In a New Year’s eve remark that could provoke the ire of anti-military critics, he said that for all its current shortcomings, the Senate has its benefits that could help stabilize or sustain democracy.

Effectively, Chuan calls for improvement rather than eradication. He avoided touching on the sensitive question of whether the Senate should be elected by the people. Unfortunately, though, that question is the crux of everything.

To expand what he said, Chuan presumably did not trust elected politicians to fill up checks-and-balances organisations. A fairer screening process is required, and a good Senate can take up the task, he said.

It’s a chicken-and-egg situation when the Senate is concerned. One side in Thailand’s national divide will never accept an unelected Senate. The other side will not allow popular election. Both sides have reasons, and for decades their stances have never wavered. It’s not democracy to allow unelected people to control things, one camp insists. Standard politicians will take control, the other camp argues, and the objective of having specialists screen legislation will ultimately get lost in the winners-take-all fight for power.

Proponents of the senatorial system say democracy needs “expertise” to really work. Imagine a unicameral Parliament in which representatives are elected based on everything but special knowledge. Legislation on important or exclusive matters like telecom development, cloning or supposed benefits of ganja can go ways off the right tracks.

Opponents say the “expertise” argument is just a pretext for undemocratic agendas. The present Senate, they state, have offered no expertise and done nothing except ensure that Prayut Chan-o-cha remained in power. There were accusations against other Senates as well. An old one, for example, was filled with backers of political parties in power, meaning senators were unlikely to use their “expertise” for public good if the upper chamber’s “judgement” was not in agreement with the said parties.

The contentious issue has been underlined by the on-going controversy over some high-level permanent officials appointed to the existing Senate. Everything goes back to the age-old questions. Who should guide Thailand? Should elected representatives do it? Or should appointees do it? Or should it be somewhere in between, and if so, what should be the formula?

The answer is not that easy, technically or politically. The difficulty is amplified by the country’s current state of affairs.

By Tulsathit Taptim