Political nitpicking stymies our progress
If the Constitutional Court rules on Friday that the 2020 budget bill is invalid, let's not blame the delay in budget disbursement on proxy voting by a tiny number of MPs. Who should take the blame then? The culprit is our parliamentary system, for its inability to resolve this tiny technical hiccup in the Lower House, which allowed it to get out of hand.
And this is not the first time. Progress in national affairs has been bogged down, over and over again, by similar small technicalities. The trend is inextricably linked with our decades-long, colour-coded political conflicts, fuelled by those in the political class making it their mission to find fault, even at a meaningless level, with their arch-rivals.
For more than a decade, our national politics have manifested as an endless series of kindergarten fights, with politicians behaving like children craving to detect small misdemeanours by their classmates so they can report them to the principal.
And most of the time, the Constitutional Court has been called in to take the role of principal.
The troubled budget bill was in fact passed by the Lower House on Jan 11. And the resulting financial injection should have been channelled to investment projects and other avenues of spending, saving a sluggish Thai economy from sinking further.
But thanks to two MPs from government coalition parties who were seen inserting electronic voting cards on behalf of two colleagues who weren't in the chamber themselves to do the job, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai submitted a request for the Constitutional Court to rule on the bill's validity following a complaint received from a group of coalition MPs and another by opposition lawmakers.
Don't blame the proxy-voting MPs. In truth, the matter could have been handled differently, couldn't it? For one thing, this is not even a case of voting fraud. What they did was akin to us laypeople assigning power of attorney for someone to handle legal matters for us, except that the MPs were forbidden from doing likewise when it came to voting by a new code of conduct for the Lower House issued last year. But the fact that the careless actions of four people could have jeopardised the legality of the entire bill is worrying, to say the least.
Granted, they broke the new Lower House code and failed to adhere strictly to Section 120 of the constitution which stipulates that one MP has one vote. However, shouldn't the House code of conduct specify the consequences for proxy voting? The lack of such specificity reveals how inefficient the system is.
Applying common sense, the votes of these MPs could have been disqualified and the bill then simply passed according to the majority achieved by the remaining votes. The political parties could impose punishments on the guilty MPs and the electorate might decline to vote for them again in future elections. It could and should be as simple as that.
But our national politics has always been far more complicated, or, to put it another way, messy.
There is a precedent for cases like these that may have made it impossible for the House Speaker to overlook. In 2014, the Democrat Party cited proxy voting by one Pheu Thai MP during the vote on a 2.2-trillion-baht loan bill for infrastructure development sponsored by the Yingluck Shinawatra government, as a basis for its request to have the Constitutional Court rule on the bill's validity.
The court ruled that the bill was unconstitutional due to the voting irregularity and that the content of the bill violated the charter's provisions on fiscal discipline and budget affairs.
The ruling resulted in the halting of the government's proposed infrastructure schemes, including a high-speed train project which was originally due for completion this year. The high-speed train idea was then pursued by the successor military government but progress still crept along at a snail's pace.
While a precedent exists for proxy-voting cases, no one can predict which way the court will rule on Friday. Yet some observers say the court may find it difficult to justify going against the precedent. This speaks volumes about a popular perception that the case is political, not legal.
Several previous rulings on political cases by the Constitutional Court have also been disputed by legal experts and political observers.
Since the colour-coded political conflict erupted in 2006, there have been numerous political cases, based on technicalities, submitted to the charter court.
Among them was a case querying the validity of the April 2006 general election due to re-positioning of polling booths by the Election Commission. Some called this a matter of technicalities. The court ruled in that year to nullify the polls and ordered a new round of voting.
In Sept 2008, the court ruled in another case involving then-prime minister Samak Sundaravej's appearances on TV cooking shows. Samak was forced from office by a ruling that he had violated the constitution by accepting payment for the appearances while in office.
The long list of technical-error cases pursued against politicians and political parties, mainly against those viewed as progressive and posing a threat to the establishment, has done nothing to improve the way our governments and parliamentarians function.
This trend has instead derailed the progress of national affairs. Maybe it is time for our political class to focus on the matters that matter, rather than obsessing and nitpicking over the small technical missteps of their peers or rivals.
Deputy Op-ed Editor
Surasak Glahan is deputy op-ed pages editor, Bangkok Post.