243rd Meeting  - Tuesday, February 10th 2004 
 

"Politics in the Thai Parliament: Has much changed since the 1997 Constitution?"
A talk by Aaron Stern
 

Present: John Cadet, Mike Calavan, Bernard D. Davis, Louis Gabaude, Oliver Hargreave, June Hulley, Carool Kersten, Martyn King, Thida Kittileate, Gerda Kramer, Helmut Kramer, Annette Kunigagon, Richard Nelson-Jones, Alain Mounier, Somkuan Piboonrat, Adrian Pieper, Botter Reeves, Jan Schauseil, Nadchaphon Srisongkram, David Steane, Bob Stratton, Carol Stratton, Edward Tuyll, Ricky Ward, Forrest Woods, David Wyatt. An audience of 26. 

Aaron is a doctoral student at the Department of Political Science, University of Michigan.  His dissertation concerns the Thai House of Representatives and its influence on government policy-making.  He has spent about 6 years in Thailand, working or doing research in various capacities.

Brief Abstract: Thailand's current constitution mandated some major changes to the Thai political system.  Many of these changes had a direct impact on the Thai parliament; for example, changing the election system for the House of Representatives and creating a popularly-elected Senate.  How much have these changes affected the parliament?  Focusing on the House of Representatives, I will explore the impact of the current constitution from a series of angles: characteristics of members of the parliament, how parliament makes laws, and how well the parliament monitors and supervises the executive branch (i.e. the cabinet and Prime Minister).
Aaron writes - This is an expanded version of the outline I used for my INTG presentation.  It covers most points I presented in my talk.  The words "see handout" in parentheses refer to a handout at the presentation with tables and charts.  Contact me for a copy via email attachment (sterna@umich.edu).

I.    Introduction
A.   A story about pedestrian bridge.
i)    Subject of three House standing committee meetings.  Testimony from people living in the area of the bridge.  High level Bangkok officials called to testify (but did not show up).  Quite a lot of rhetoric from committee members. Turns out a member of the committee (not from Bangkok) lives right by the area in question, which probably explains how the issue got on the committee agenda in the first place.
ii)    An attempt to contrast the two roles/functions of the House: it is both a law-making body at the national level and an organization operating to serve the often very personal/detailed needs of constituents.

II. Overview of Presentation
A.   Description of my research
i)    Observed activities at the Thai House of Representatives (lower chamber of the parliament) during November 2001 to January 2004. 
ii)    Attended meetings of 4 committees (three standing committees of the House and one joint House-Senate committee considering a draft law). 
iii)   Conducted formal interviews and held many informal conversations with politicians, permanent House administrative staff, legislative staff, and others outside of parliament.

B.   Outline main points of talk
i)    What is parliament supposed to be doing, particularly in light of the current constitution?
ii)    Focus on the House of Representatives because that is where I did almost all my research.
iii)   Focus on a few areas of possible change
a.    Will sometimes look back to 1979.  Beginning of a period of declining military influence in politics and consecutive elected governments only interrupted by one military coup d'état.

III.       What was Parliament supposed to do under the Current Constitution?
A.   Make laws
i)    National policies that affect everyone, or at least large segments of the population.
ii)    One goal behind the change in the electoral system.
a.    Previous House elections essentially involved electing multiple representatives from a single district.  Voters could vote for more than one candidate in a single election in their district.
b.   New constitution increased size of House to 500 members.  400 members elected from districts where only one person was the winner and had to represent that district. 100 members selected based on lists of candidates prepared by each political party before the election.  The amount of votes each party received in the elections for the individual districts determines how many people from each party's list become members of the House (i.e. if your party wins a large proportion of the individual district elections, a large number of the candidates on its list become members).  This is the essence of the electoral change, minus some details.
c.    So-called "party list MPs" should have the prominence and flexibility to work on more "national" policy concerns, unburdened by the need to maintain voter support in individual districts.

B.   Check on government
i)    Most powerful tool parliaments have is the no-confidence vote in the government and the Thai House is not different from most other parliaments.
ii)    Senate becomes fully and popularly elected, not appointed by the King based on recommendations from the prime minister. 
a.    Senate is meant to serve as a check on the government and on any excessive actions by the House.  Senators cannot be members of or associate with political parties.  Senators serve only one 6-year term.

C.   Providing a previously unavailable channel for members of the public to influence the government policy making process
i)    The ideas of "good governance" and "public participation" have entered into Thai politics and to some extent been enshrined in the current constitution.
ii)    Goal is to bring a wider variety of interest groups into the process and provide more information and more accurate information about government activities.
a.    Constitution has provisions (see section 59) for public hearings and obtaining greater access to information about government activities.
b.   Constitution (section 170) contains provisions for 50,000 eligible voters to present a draft law to the House for its consideration.

IV.       What has happened in the House, particularly since the New Constitution came into effect?
A.   Concerning parliament making laws
i)    The executive branch dominates much of the law-making process.  The vast majority of laws proposed by the cabinet pass the House. The versions proposed by groups of House members rarely become laws.
ii)    Is law-making what parliament does best?  Constitutions across the world state this as main function of parliament.  But what about representing the interests of individual members' constituencies?  In the words of one prominent MP, the constitution made a mistake.  MPs are really representatives of their constituencies and should do what they can to direct government resources to their districts.  Law-making is a secondary function.
iii)   Money bills
a.    Way of prime minister exercising influence over legislative process.  In current constitution and a number of previous constitutions.
b.   Section 169 of the constitution describes money bills as follows: "i) the imposition, repeal, reduction, alteration, modification, remission, or regulation of taxes or duties; ii) the allocation, receipt, custody, payment of the state funds, or transfer of expenditure estimates of the state; iii) the raising of loans, or guarantee or redemption of loans; and iv) currency."
c.    The Prime Minister must endorse the designation of a draft bill as a money bill.  If the House approves and the Senate then disapproves of a money bill, a House vote in favor of the money bill (i.e. absolute majority votes in favor) means the money bill goes directly to the Prime Minister for approval, bypassing the Senate. 
d.   There are no clear criteria for deciding what is a money bill.
iv)   Emergency decrees
a.    Another as way of getting around parliament.  Has to be used sparingly and for issues that will not raise the hackles too much of government coalition members (e.g. terrorism legislation gets a decree but bureaucratic reform bills get debated in House, partly because of strong House member connections with government ministries).
v)   Dominance of cabinet in legislative process not unusual internationally. Characteristic of most parliamentary systems, and many presidential systems as well.
vi)   50,000 eligible voter petition process
a.    50,000 eligible voters are much less than 1% of the Thai population.
b.   Few draft laws submitted using this method and simply submitting such a draft law does not guarantee it will get on the House agenda in the form submitted or in a timely manner.
c.    Community Forest Bill as one example of a draft bill using petition process. Received lots of attention and strong lobbying by some non-profit organizations and community groups in forested areas.  But then it disappeared from House agenda and news media.  Possibly removed by government from consideration because it was too controversial and the subject of a House-Senate disagreement over key language.
vii)  Policy expertise of members
a.    Complaints about the lack of expertise of members have been made for many years in Thailand.
b.   Educational data on House members (refer to handout)
c.    Partial reflection of general increase in education levels in Thailand
d.   Rise in number of Master’s degrees held by House members may not reflect significantly increased knowledge about key Thai policy areas.  The "easy degree" problem in which members obtain a degree without investing much effort because having a piece of paper that proves you possess an educational degree looks good.
ix)   Local government experience of members (see handout)
a.    Many MPs start their political careers in local government (e.g. kamnan, village head, provincial councilor, etc.)
b.   Current House contains the largest proportion of members who served in local government since 1979.  Unsure why.

B.   Concerning supervision of government
i)    Most substantial check on government excess is the vote of no confidence. Complaints about unstable coalition governments and party switching led to constitutional provisions designed to limit these occurrences.  Now Thai Rak Thai dominates so no confidence motions have little chance of success. No-confidence votes are currently a weak check on the prime minister's power.
ii)    Creation of many different independent bodies such as the National Counter Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Court has limited parliament's control over many potential oversight functions. 
iii)   Budget process
a.    Each year, the House has responsibility for debating and approving the national government budget.  House power has been and remains very weak over the budget process. 
b.   Elimination of MP funds in mid-1990s.  MP funds were 20 million baht allocations to each MP over which they had significant control.  Typically used for projects in members' districts.
c.    Constituency focus of MPs still motivates them to find ways to get government programs into their constituencies.  But it is rare to see an organized group (with the partial exception of factions within political parties) pushing a particular idea strongly in the budget process. 
iv)   Much concern about control of the Senate.  Democrat party suggestion that Senators be allowed to join political parties was rejected during constitutional drafting process.  Most insiders believe Senate already effectively under Thai Rak Thai control.  Senate has powers to appoint and/or approve members of various bodies such as the Constitutional Court but the Senate is only one step in the approval process. 
a.    A very recent sign of Senate weakness is the attempt by some Senators to initiate a Senate debate on government policies, particularly involving the bird flu.  Senate was unable (at this writing) to obtain a quorum of 120 Senators necessary to hold such a debate.
v). Member experience in government
a.    Refers to which members have previously held positions as ministers, deputy ministers, assistants to ministers, secretaries to ministers, officials in the Office of the Prime Minister, etc. (see handout)
b.   Greater MP experience in cabinet and ministries could improve House supervision of the government by giving MPs more knowledge of ministry activities.  It could also lead to more opportunities for collusion between MPs and government officials.  My observations point towards the latter.
vi)   Argument that new faces among membership will change the nature of parliament. See little evidence that this has had much effect.  New members are often steeped in politics (party list, local government), dependent on financial help, not ideological, not willing to engage in collective action with other young members on key issues.  In addition, they are only marginally better educated than existing members (at least for the current parliament).
vii)  Committee work
a.    As with the pedestrian bridge story at the beginning of the talk, the issues that get submitted to committees and what gets on committee agendas are often quite local/individual concerns.
b.   Notice that you almost never hear anything about House committees working on the bird flu issue.  The bird flu is a national problem with very direct and measurable impacts on constituents.  On the surface, it seems ideal for a national committee to consider. 
c.    The use of House standing committees as petition bodies, often for individual cases, is a long-time phenomenon that has not changed under the current constitution.  Committees are often a form of constituency service.  The role of MPs is an intermediary between the public and government officials. 
d.   A committee may not have the power to directly solve a problem.  But it may be able to recruit a committee member with strong connections to a cabinet official or ministry to help resolve the problem.  This has also changed little since 1979.

C.   Concerning providing a previously unavailable channel for members of the public to influence the government policy making process

i)    Interest groups
a.    Organized, registered interest groups do not work much with parliament.
b.   The most sustained and frequent protests concerning government policies occur in front of Government House (where the prime minister and cabinet officials have offices), not at parliament.
c.    Attended only one committee meeting where a national-level interest group presented its case.
d.   This interest group represented construction businesses.  Many house members involved in construction business.  This appeal to the committee was clearly a last resort.  The group had spent a long time lobbying cabinet officials without results.
ii)    What are non-governmental organizations and non-profit organizations doing?
a.    Involved with a very limited number of issues in House and do not seem to get much attention from most House members.
b.   A few NGOs are well-connected with the House Committee on Justice and Human Rights but that is a particularly weak committee.
c.    James Klein (current Director of Asia Foundation in Thailand) wrote a paper on forming National Human Rights Commission.  The process involved sustained, heavy pressure by various non-governmental and non-profit groups but with limited results favoring these groups.  The Commission is relatively weak.
d.   Daniel Arghiros' publications are useful for understanding interest groups in local politics and connections between local politicians and national-level politicians.
e.    Ji Ungpakorn sees the non-government organization movements as fragmented. He has put forth an idea which many people in the non-governmental groups find unattractive: form a political party and contest elections.  Even if such a party does not wins seats in the first few elections it contests, it can start to change the government's political priorities and the kinds of issues high on the government's agenda.

V.   Conclusion
A.   The Thai parliament has been a relatively static organization in Thai politics since 1979, in terms of how committees operate, how it considers legislation, the importance attached to constituency service, etc.
B.   Perhaps I was too optimistic but I expected to see more changes in the House, given the transformation of Thailand since the 1970s (e.g. higher average levels of education, a population better informed about government activities, the growth of organized interest groups, etc.) and the changes created by the current constitution.
C.   Post-1997 optimism reflects 1980s optimism.  There was a burst of academic and policy institute ("think-tank") work on parliament during the 1980s.  Much of the optimism disappeared after the corruption associated with the Chatchai Choonhavan government (1988-1991) and the military coup of 1991.
D.   Or perhaps I am too early?  Parliaments take a long time to change, like most governmental and political institutions.  The changes instituted by the current constitution may turn out to have substantial effects on the parliament but these are not clearly apparent now.
E.   Comparative analysis
i)    Parliaments typically very resistant to change.  British parliament took hundreds of years to change substantially. 
ii)    The Thai parliament is not so different from parliaments in other countries, even a number of parliamentary democracies which by usual measures of democracy would be measured as more democratic than Thailand.

After a lively and informative question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Aaron in more informal discussion whilst partaking of drinks and snacks.