Progress through decentralisation
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Progress through decentralisation

The results of the latest general election have indicated a clear direction that most citizens would like the country to go. However, because of the entrenched power structure, the effort by a coalition of opposition parties to form a new government that could radically transform Thailand may be futile. The first reason is the Election Commission's scrutiny of the claims that Mr Pita Limjaroenrat, the Move Forward Party's leader, owns ITV shares. Second, he may be unable to garner the needed 376 votes from the Senate and parliament. Finally, will the dispute over the House speaker position affect the coalition?

This would be a disappointment for over 30 million voters who want to see Thailand enter the 21st century. Mr Pita told CNN he would move Thailand forward through his work to "demilitarise, demonopolise and decentralise". Framing his work with the three Ds is conceptually sound, as it has long been recognised that, in Thailand, business tycoons thrive through business protection and connections with the military generals who ruled the country for most of Thailand's modern political history, supported by a highly centralised administrative system. Recognising these structural problems, which have existed for centuries, is one thing; tackling them is another.

On May 22, eight political parties signed an MoU to signify that they would unite and commit to their common problems. Item 6 states that the coalition will "Strive for decentralisation of power and budget allocation to enable localities to respond to the needs of their communities appropriately, efficiently, and without corruption".

Given a history of over seven centuries of highly centralised management that transcended, if not superseded, the three previous constitutions -- which stipulated decentralisation -- it will be extremely difficult to use decentralisation as an instrument for national advancement.

In the current system, the top bureaucrats, particularly from the Ministry of Interior (MOI), are rule setters and procedures regulators. As such, local governments are required to follow the instructions set by the MOI. Many of them are not necessarily responsive to the needs of the citizens.

There are various reasons to support decentralisation. First, it will create a better understanding among the local governments of their specific needs and challenges, resulting in more efficient allocation and utilisation of their own limited resources.

Second, decentralisation can help address income and wealth inequality in the nation. By empowering local governments to make decisions on infrastructure development and economic development policies, local areas that the central government agencies have neglected can seek attention and investment from private sector sources outside the area, thus generating new employment for their citizens. In connection with this, local governments can implement policies promoting entrepreneurship, attracting investment and supporting local businesses or industries.

Third, when autonomy is distributed across multiple levels of governance, local governments have more opportunities to engage in policy-making actively and contribute their ideas and perspectives to the national government, thus fostering a sense of partnership that leads to better governance and more responsive policies. Fourth, by dispersing power, decentralisation reduces the risks of corruption and abuse of power. Therefore, it promotes transparency, accountability and checks and balances, as local and national governments can monitor and hold each other accountable.

Finally, decentralisation allows local governments to have more autonomy and flexibility in managing and responding to natural disasters, such as recurrent floods, droughts and storms. Local officials, who are often more familiar with the local context and challenges, can make prompt responses to address the immediate needs and recovery efforts.

In advanced countries, decentralisation is usually accompanied by deregulation and the promotion of public services to the citizens. If carefully and astutely implemented, it will be a leverage point for the achievements of the central government.

Decentralisation is a vehicle that moves a nation toward progress, but it can be effective only when it consists of three components: administrative decentralisation, fiscal decentralisation and political decentralisation. These three components are interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

Administrative decentralisation involves the transfer of administrative functions, responsibilities and resources from the central government to local governments. It includes delegating administrative tasks, local service delivery responsibilities and decision powers for managing public services, such as education, healthcare, infrastructure and some public utilities.

Fiscal decentralisation refers to transferring financial resources, revenue-raising powers and expenditure responsibilities from the central government to local governments. It involves allocating financial resources and granting fiscal autonomy to local authorities, allowing them to generate and manage their own revenue, manage budgets and finance local development initiatives.

Political decentralisation aims to promote local self-governance, citizen participation and democratic principles at the local level within a defined legal framework. It also involves devolving power and autonomy to local authorities.

Due to the sensitive nature of decentralisation in a country like Thailand, it is advisable that we leave the election of provincial governors out in our arduous task of promoting decentralisation. For now, we must first focus on administrative and fiscal decentralisation. Political decentralisation will follow.

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa

Khon Kaen University Dean

Peerasit Kamnuansilpa is Dean, College of Local Administration Khon Kaen University.

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