In theory, a democratic nation is governed by three branches: the executive, judicial and the parliamentary or legislative. In Thailand's reality, the country is governed formally by those three institutions, but also informally by two other institutions, the military and what we shall term as the "old establishment".
That's five institutions, two too many.
The partnership between the military and the old establishment saved Thailand from fragmentation and from being ripped apart by civil war as was the fate of neighboring countries during the tumultuous Cold War era. This should be recognised.
The alliance saved the country from destruction and communism, but democratic it was not.
For Thai democracy to progress today we have to subtract two from the five. Not to be rid of them, but their grip on Thai politics needs to be released. These two ought to become respected institutions within the democracy, rather than feared ones operating above and beyond democracy. This line of thought has already been much discussed, however.
Therefore this column will focus on the parliament, which also includes the executive branch as the prime minister is one of its 500 members. The parliament must be an agent that drives forward Thai democracy. After all, MPs are put in their positions by the people to do just that.
The judiciary is a branch of government formed through appointments, so we shall leave it out of this particular discussion.
For parliament to drive Thai democracy forward it must first prove its dignity, integrity and ability to the Thai people. It must convince the Thai people to believe in it.
Ever since Gen Prem Tinsulanonda stepped down in 1988, transferring Thailand from strongman politics to democratic politics, Thai parliaments, one after another, have failed the Thai people. The dignity and integrity of parliament are not only questioned, the political body is looked down upon with disgust by the Thai people, leaving only the irony that it is these same people who voted them into office.
Rife with corruption and patronage; self-serving tools and tools of mafia godfathers; business/social elites quivering in fear of and in servitude to unseen powers, the invisible hand and Skype meetings _ these are the familiar views of the parliament held by the Thai people who, again, voted for them.
Of course, every single MP should not be cast in such a negative light. Surely there have been and are at present many men and women with dignity, integrity and ability in parliament. But here we talk of the sum of the whole, not the exceptions.
Since the military coup on Sept 19, 2006, there have been opportunities for parliament to prove its dignity, integrity and ability to the Thai people. There have been many occasions when it could have rescued the country from political crisis and at the same time saved lives and property. But time and time again, it failed.
When the tanks rolled in on Sept 19, 2006, the representative MPs did not unite and stand for democracy against the coup.
The 500 men and women in office time were nowhere to be seen at the time. In fact, some of them were believed to have supported the coup. The sporadic voices of half-hearted disapproval only served to show how weak parliament was and still is.
As well, when street politics took over parliamentary politics, our MPs failed in their role. When the People's Alliance for Democracy marched through Bangkok, MPs from the Democrat Party joined their stage and yelled into the microphone.
When the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship occupied Ratchaprasong intersection, they flew red banners with names and districts of Pheu Thai MPs who sponsored their trip.
Popular protests are healthy for democracy, as long as they are peaceful and comply with the law. Such protests show that the people have a voice and the willingness to use their voice to help shape the country. Street politics are a part of democracy.
But when MPs leave their parliamentary seats to join in the street, there is a problem. When they jump on the stage or sponsor a busload of protesters, there is a problem.
The problem is that they have shown they are not willing or able to exercise their democratic power through legislation as they were elected to do. Instead, they chose to go outside their mandate and hit the streets.
Last year, Gen Boonlert Kaewprasit called on the populace to rally and said that another military coup wouldn't be such a bad thing. The former suggestion was fine and within the democratic process, but the latter was a dangerous notion.
This was an opportune time for Yingluck Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva to jointly lead parliament in speaking out against such an undemocratic notion. Here was where the political divide could have been bridged, however temporary, by putting democracy at the top of priorities.
A united front by parliament, men and women laying aside party line in the interests of what brought them together in the first place, democracy _ this would have been the stance of a strong parliament. Instead, we heard a few sporadic voices of half-hearted disapproval.But alas, who's willing to make democracy the top priority? Who's willing to use democracy as a platform to bridge the political divide? Hence, in such a test, parliament has failed democracy.
The Thai parliament is sorely lacking in dignity, integrity and authority, and it is the MPs themselves who undermine the power of the institution. For Thai democracy to progress, the 500 men and women sitting in parliament need to re-examine their role.
Because Thailand is a parliamentary democracy, in assessing the health of the Thai democracy, we should diagnose parliament.
Given the number of godfathers and gangsters there are in those parliamentary seats; given the amount of corruption, cronyism and nepotism we the Thai people perceive regarding parliament; given the carelessness MPs show in turning their backs on the parliamentary institution and abandoning their elected seats for street politics; given the news footage we have seen of MPs getting into fist fights in and out of parliament _ how healthy then is Thailand's democracy?
For parliament to drive democracy forward in this country it must prove its own dignity, integrity and ability to the Thai people. Our MPs need to shape up. But then again, why should they, when the people keep voting them in?
This column may be full of idealistic expectations, and for sure there will be several doubters of whether real change is possible.
But while it's certain the ideals will never be completely realised, changes can't be made if idealistic goals aren't first set. Don't let the improbabilities or the naysayers stop us from fighting for the ideals.
Democracy can only fail if we the people, along with our elected representatives, fail democracy.
Contact Voranai Vanijaka via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the author
- Writer: Voranai Vanijaka
Position: Political and Social Commentator