This post is part of New Mandala’s Thai institutions series. The first post in this series (Archives) is available here, the second (Unions) is here, the third (Police) is here, and the fourth (Judiciary) is here.
Obviously, the Thai House of Representatives is not a Thai institution, or inasmuch as it is a Thai institution, it might not really be a functioning House. Nevertheless, its formal story began with the toppling of Siam’s absolute monarchy in 1932, which necessitated a redesign of the country’s system of government. This was achieved by importing a ready-made solution from the West, which included a constitution, a parliament, a prime minister, a cabinet, and, taking a wider perspective, politicians, political parties, and voters. Ever since, much of Thai politics have revolved around the attempt to make this institutional order–under the name of “democracy”–take root in Thailand, or around rejecting this order based on military power, because it did not fit in with “Thainess,” or because the Thais were “not yet ready” to govern themselves.
Moreover, what does the country need a parliamentary system of government based on popular sovereignty for when an elite group of forces (collectively called aphichon, including the monarchy, military, and bureaucrats/technocrats, the latter pair being labeled ammart) already takes good paternalistic care of the people within these forces’ well-grounded understanding of what is good for the nation? As long as Thailand continuous to operate a dual polity in which the upper-tier aphichon think that democracy only applies to the ordinary people beneath them (collectively called prachachon, including politicians, political parties, and the people in general), parliament can only have a rather limited significance in the overall scheme of Thai politics.
However, two more issues connected with parliament itself also seriously limit its function of representing the will of the people. First, the mechanism used to recruit personnel to serve as representatives in parliament is highly exclusionary. Ordinary people–with all the political interests, talents, and competency they might potentially bring to this institution–have hardly any access to active roles in their own representative body. Their access is blocked by the fact that Thailand so far has largely failed to develop a politically generalized mechanism of recruitment. Instead, the country still mainly relies on highly personalized and informal political groupings, which are often centered on certain families of local notables, at the provincial level for producing MP candidates. People who want to work in parliament, for whatever reason, thus need to spend many years–and considerable sums of money–in building their own personal political support bases in their localities before they will ever have a realistic chance of even getting near the number of votes necessary for winning a seat in parliament. Accessibility would be much easier, and parliaments’ representiveness tremendously enhanced, if politically interested individuals could merely apply with the local branch of the political party of their choice, and then work their way up in that organizational context, until they might be selected to run in parliamentary elections.
This localized nature of MPs is the second issue that limits parliament’s ability to represent the people, this time with respect to the policy process. Contrary to the widespread view that MPs should simply embody the sum of their constituents’ local concerns, and give voice to them at the national level, the modern political world demands to adopt a much wider perspective on representation. Policy issues such as the exchange rate, international trade agreements, the participation in international peace missions, global climate concerns, science and technology in connection with economic competitiveness, the dealing with industrial pollution and safety, or the future energy demands of the country, to mention but a few, cannot be reduced to the constituent villagers’ local concerns. Nevertheless, as the supposed sovereign of the political order, these rural and urban constituents must be represented in the policy-making processes on such issues, which will substantially affect their and their children’s lives. Yet, MPs who are selected mainly by their capacity tenaciously to build local support bases and win personalized elections are more often than not unsuitable to fulfill their representational roles in these modern and demanding policy fields, simply because they lack the required interest, knowledge, and experience. Their factions and political parties also do not provide them with an institutionalized organizational context that emphasizes the deliberation of policy problems and the search for policy solutions.
Thus, the “sovereign people” of Thailand are in three ways still largely blocked from being represented equally in their own polity. First, elite forces continue to see themselves as above the democratic order, and compete with it. Second, the people in general lack access to active political roles in the formal political system (as distinct from civil society/non-governmental organizations, protests, or social movements). Third, their representation in areas of modern policy-attention leaves much to be desired. In sum, if the Thai parliament is to develop into a viable democratic institution, quite a bit of institution building is needed. It is unlikely that this will happen in the near future.
Dr. Michael H. Nelson is a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand. He can be reached at [email protected].