Debate can find way forward for Thai politics

By Zhou Fangye Source:Global Times Published: 2015-5-26 22:38:01

May marks the one year anniversary of the Thai coup staged by former military chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha.

On May 19, the military-led government, which is known as the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), decided to present a new constitution, which is still in draft form, to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), and approved a national referendum on the constitution. Following the decision, a general election in Thailand, which was expected to be held in the middle of 2016, will have to be delayed for half a year, and thus Prayuth's interim government will be extended.

Vowing to realize social reconciliation and political reform, the military junta has proposed a three-step roadmap to revive democracy: the first step is to end political unrest and restore social stability, the second is to establish an interim government and draft a new constitution, and the third is to return power to the people and hold a widely accepted general election.

Thanks to the strong position of the military, the other political factions buried the hatchet after the coup, and the first step has been smoothly realized. A new constitution was enacted last July and the NLA was organized to act on behalf of parliament. In August, Prayuth, head of the NCPO, was elected as the prime minister.

However, the second step is beset by difficulties, because every clique wants more interests from the new constitution, as this relates to their positions in the new power structure when power is returned to the people.

The military group wants to resurrect a military-led authoritarian system, which was prevalent in the 1980s. Depending on a political alliance with the royal family and royalists, the military group can keep an eye on the legislature by appointing a certain number of senators, through which these elected political parties will be put under effective military oversight and restraint.

Thus, they argue, Thailand will be able to guarantee a stable environment and forge ahead with its middle- and long-term economic growth strategy. Besides, the system will effectively reduce pork-barrel politics and impulsive decision-making.

But the ousted Thaksin Shinawatra and his faction expect a restoration of election democracy. By relying on the financial support of capitalists and the majority farmers' votes, Thaksin and his group can have a winner-takes-all result through the polls. In this way, Thaksin's party can be the sole holder of administrative power as it was in 2005.

But the Democrat Party and urban middle-class elites want neither of these. They prefer a consultative democratic system which is different from a tyranny of the majority or a military dictatorship. They want to set up independent institutions, through constitutional review, to impose effective supervision on cabinet, parliament and the bureaucracy.

After the constitution was drafted, it encountered strong resistance from other groups, so Prayuth changed his mind and left it to the public to decide.

As for Thailand's political reform, a referendum on the new constitution is not the key. The last constitution, which was enacted after a referendum in 2007, wasn't any help in social reconciliation or reunification. On the contrary, it triggered large-scale political turbulence in 2013.

Therefore, before the new referendum, Thailand needs to gather all political parties to engage in a full-scale negotiation process and install order. Only in this way, can the new power structure be acceptable for each political faction.

Trial and error cannot be avoided during the process of choosing an agreeable political system. Although copying Western democracy can be a short-cut, a grafted system, which cannot fit in local conditions, will very likely go wrong in the end.

Prayuth's three-step roadmap has not been accomplished as planned, but it might be the best way for Thailand to have longer-term stability. All political forces in Thailand should show more patience and sense of duty to pave a smooth path for further reforms.

The author is an associate research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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