Long history of divisive Senate issue (2nd and final part)
For decades, every charter amendment showdown has had the Senate as the main plot. Details may have varied, but they have revolved around the same questions: Should senators be appointed or elected? How much power should they have?
Thailand’s current political developments, exciting and “phenomenal” as they may look, are old problems repackaged and coming out into the open. That the Senate is under siege at the moment cannot hide the fact that Thailand has tried basically everything _ be it a powerful Senate, or a weak Senate, or a mixture of elected and appointed senators.
The nation’s political divide has been plagued with rhetoric, and while a popular theme often describes one side as “pro-democracy” and the other anything but, the truth is that Thais have been actually divided over “limits” of democracy, what defines “legitimacy”, and how far “the rule of law” can go, especially if it deals with public figures or institutions popular among the people.
Throughout the decades-long disagreement, the Senate has played a big part. There were times when advocates of the “Upper House” had the advantage. Currently, they certainly do not, despite having the Constitution in their favours.
What has happened to Thaksin Shinawatra, Yingluck Shinawatra and Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit and the consequences of action against the trio reflect the deep disagreement in the country over the divisive issues regarding the “limits”, “legitimacy” and “rule of law”.
In other words, modern-day Thailand still has to cope with the politics that divided King Rama VII and Khana Ratsadon. The country today still struggles to deal with someone who apparently manipulated stocks massively when he was a businessman, but who has become a very popular prime minister who introduced a good welfare scheme, among others, while being accused of major corruption and conflicts of interests in office.
Thaksin brought the “How?”, “Where?” and “When?” questions about the experimented Thai democracy into the open, largely and sometimes violently. His ouster was decried by supporters as a “pattern” of persecution, but it is in fact a pattern of ideological conflicts rooted in 1932 or before that.
Thaksin’s premiership ended in a coup in 2006. Resentment over his downfall and asset seizure by the state erupted in a bloody uprising in 2010. His sister, Yingluck, came to power in 2011, which was virtually a victory for the pro-Khana Ratsadon side. Her reign would, however, be stopped in 2014 when Prayut Chan-o-cha staged a coup, introduced a new Constitution that favoured the other side, largely through a strong Senate, and became prime minister after a general election in 2019.
But the ideological conflict would continue unabated. Businessman Thanathorn effectively became a Second Thaksin immediately after his emergence. He is rich, relatively young, popular and is perceived by many as fighting for poorer people. He was judged by the Thai judicial system as having broken the law. Some say a full-scale democracy anywhere else would embrace him; others say there is enough ground for suspicion, and that Thailand, crawling with many shady politicians already, is not ready for him.
The disagreement has shaped the current political landscape, in which the conservatives preferring the painstakingly slow approach hold government powers but those on the other side constitute a formidable opposition.
The current government coalition has three main forces. The first is the Palang Pracharath Party, which the biggest one in the bloc but whose solidity is questionable due to internal conflicts caused by the fact that it is made up of uneasy allies and former enemies. The second is the Democrat Party, which used to be very popular but whose popularity is nearing rock bottom. The third is the Bhumjaithai Party, which seems more flexible than the other two regarding the possibility of switching to the other side.
The opposition is consisted of two major camps. The first is the Pheu Thai Party, which virtually belongs to Thaksin, who allegedly controls its high-level affairs from his exile in Dubai. The second is Thanathorn’s political party, which is now named Kao Klai (Move Forward) following the Constitution Court’s dissolution of his initial Future Forward Party.
The line dividing Parliament is getting blurred when it comes to charter amendment. Shifting and fractured alliances have become a common theme, with the relevance and powers of the Senate constituting a main issue.
Senators have always been a proxy in the long-standing political showdown.
Whether the Senate should come from direct election, or through a mixed election-appointment formula, or shouldn’t exist at all is a political debate that has apparently got Thailand nowhere. A strong and appointed Senate would be accused of being a dictatorial tool, while a weak or elected one would be accused of not being truly independent and thus being a tool of political parties.
The question that nobody seemed able to answer is how the Senate can serve as a genuine legislative screening body and is effectively guarded against the lure that always sent senatorial candidates under the wings of parties’ leaders.
Now, as far as the Senate is concerned, Pheu Thai and Move Forward are campaigning, in different degrees and in the face of conflicts among themselves, for charter amendment. In the big picture, though, the two parties’ uneasy alliance seeks to shift the questions of “How?”, “Where?” and “When?” to their favours. The government, of course, will resist moves for rapid and drastic changes, but some government MPs have allied with the opposition in trying to curtail the role of the Senate.
The questions of “How?”, “Where?” and “When?” took a back seat due to the COVID-19 pandemic rattling the world. With Thailand’s COVID-19 situation improving, the same old questions have reared their ugly heads and seriously are poised to re-shatter Thailand’s political truce. Much will depend on the economy, which has been greatly impacted by the global pandemic. The government of Prayut Chan-o-cha had seen approval ratings increase thanks to its handling of the outbreak, but the situation is being upended as fears of the deadly virus die down and Thais’ main concern goes back to money in the pocket.
Recent opinion polls have all confirmed that if a bad economy is coupled with major corruption cases, proposed charter changes advocated by Pheu Thai and Move Forward can be immensely boosted. The opposition parties are pushing hard now, with the Senate a main target.
This time, however, there are uncertainties that have never been there before in the political divide. A COVID-19-effected bad economy can result in revolving-door governments because it can complicate, or blur, or enhance the questions of “How?”, “Where?” and “When?”. Ideological disagreement can give way to urgent and massive needs in the financial and health care departments. Those needs can transcend ideology, simply because they can be staggering and leave little or no room for political agendas at the highest level.
This is not to say that the decades-old showdown will stop. It does not matter if Thailand will have a new Constitution and whether there will be a Senate or how much powers senators will have. Fighting will go on, but very likely in an uncharted territory.
By Tulsathit Taptim