Less local control a threat to Thai democracy
After an almost seven-year suspension, Thailand held its first local elections for chief executive officers (CEO) and council members of provincial administrative organisations (PAO) on Dec 20, 2020, followed by the election of mayors and city council members on March 28 of this year.
The election of CEOs and council members of tambon administrative organisations (TAO), the lowest tier of local government but the closest to the people, is scheduled for Nov 28. It seems like Thailand is revitalising and strengthening the foundations of democracy through local governance, but is this truly what is happening?
As of the election application deadline on Oct 15, the combined number of candidates for CEOs and councillors reached a staggering 136,250. Examination of the candidates in Khon Kaen shows that only 40% are incumbents standing for re-election. If we assume this carries through nationwide, we could speculate that over 81,000 candidates are new to the local administration arena. It is also likely that their average age is lower than previous office holders, that is, those who have served previous terms and had gained experience.
The inexperienced elected officials will have to undergo a process of orientation mandated by the Ministry of Interior (MOI). In the past, during this process, elected candidates were often co-opted to become de facto central government officials, representatives of the MOI and a new group of local elites to rule the citizens.
The first question is, why have so many incumbents chosen not to run again? In an informal survey last month, a team from the College of Local Administration at Khon Kaen University conducted casual phone interviews with a small sample of its alumni who either are working or have previously worked in a local administrative organisation (LAO). Speaking on causes of anonymity, many felt that since the junta-appointed government came into power in 2014, the principles of decentralised management that served as an effective guide for local governance were disrupted.
The big question is, how did they come to this opinion?
First, the interior ministry has minimised the community development roles of TAOs. Prior to the military-installed government, funds were allocated from the central government to the CEOs of the TAOs. Instead of allocating all of the budget to TAOs, the central government recently has allocated an annual budget of 500,000 baht for each village directly through kamnan village heads and phuyaiban or subdistrict heads (SHs), bypassing the CEOs, to carry out local development projects.
Because of benefits received from these development projects, village heads and the SHs -- positions known to act as facilitators between the interior ministry and villagers -- tended to develop a loyalty to the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the coalition party.
Allocating local development budgets to village heads and SHs from CEOs is a zero-sum game. With budget allocations shared with village heads and SHs, the TAOs, found it difficult to balance their budgets for salaries, maintenance, and the unfunded mandates from the provincial governor, who is a representative of the central government.
Since 2015, some TAOs have had only a few million baht to cover emergency and critical expenses to respond to local needs, according to the research.
Second, because of diminished authority, the CEOs of TAOs, were relegated to a lower social status vis-à-vis that of the village heads and SHs. This started when the village heads and SHs, who did not have their own workforce and, in most cases, lacked the technical know-how to carry out local development projects such as bridge construction or repairing local roads, used a memo signed by the district chief or an authorised representative to request the secondment of a civil engineer or a technician from the office of the TAO to assist in project implementation.
In effect, the CEOs of the TAOs have lost some personnel management authority to the village heads and SHs. In the minds of the personnel involved with central government projects, it is more sensible to follow the instructions of the district chief exercised through village heads or SHs than to follow the supervision of the CEOs of the TAOs.
Third, over the last seven years, most local governmental organisations experienced an increasing proportion of their budgets, currently averaging approximately 50%, being allocated as specific grants. In the past, this was averaging less than 30%. However, a sizable chunk of their total budget is earmarked by central government agencies for various welfare schemes such as the elderly allowance, the school milk and school lunch programs or allowance for people living with Aids, for example.
The process of budget allocation has been plagued with regularities and reports of corruption. There has been non-substantiated anecdotes that CEOs of some TAOs must pay, up front and in cash, an amount of at least 10% of the estimated costs for the infrastructure or development projects that they are proposing. Further, the decisions for projects under specific grants are often devised by a convoluted team of business, bureaucrats, and politicians put together by the central government, further weakening the control of the TAOs. However, to the local governments, getting something is still better than being left out in the cold.
To foster accountability and responsiveness to its citizens, control must be returned to the CEOs of the TAOs, and they must have most of their budget allocated as general grants, where they have spending discretion, as it was under decentralisation.
We also suggest the TAO administrators need to be provided with the requisite knowledge about effective provision of public services through required certification from a recognised academic institution.
In addition, more management autonomy must be granted to them. Let them learn from and work freely with the people in their communities to develop strategic visions for the future of the citizens of their area.
Give them the freedom to implement a wide variety of responsive policies to make their vision a reality for the wellbeing of the local citizens and the welfare of our nation, not for the benefit of the elites and central government officials.
Khon Kaen University Dean
Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is Dean, College of Local Administration Khon Kaen University.