What's Wrong With Thailand's New Constitution

Everyday Thais should decide who governs.

Photographer: Christophe Archambault/AFP/Getty Images

The draft constitution presented in Thailand last week grants "everything that every citizen ever felt the need to fight for," according to the junta-appointed committee that wrote it. By diminishing the role of those same citizens in government, however, it’s far more likely to prolong the country's political stalemate. 

QuickTake Thailand's Troubled Democracy

Changes introduced in the new constitution are supposed to protect Thailand from the kind of graft and populist excess blamed on its recent elected leadership. Critics accuse former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of presiding over a corrupt administration after his election in 2001, saying he used handouts to his base in the poor but populous north and northeast to maintain his hold on power. (Thaksin, who was convicted of corruption by a military-appointed court after his ouster in 2006, has protested his innocence.) Since he fled into exile, Thailand has been paralyzed by a series of coups, short-lived governments (including one led by Thaksin’s sister Yingluck), and street clashes between Thaksin supporters and resentful urban and middle-class Thais. 

To break this deadlock, the new constitution would weaken the clout of elected politicians. A proportional voting system would encourage smaller parties and coalition governments in the lower house of parliament, while the upper house would be filled with a mix of candidates nominated by committee or selected by professional groups, including one dominated by former military figures. Under certain circumstances, the prime minister could be appointed from outside parliament. Watchdog agencies perceived to be tied to the establishment would get new powers. Thus, unelected elites could mind the store, rather than ordinary voters -- thought to be too susceptible to populist blandishments. 

Such a system would hark back to Thailand's failed past. Earlier constitutions also featured an appointed prime minister and senate, along with a weak lower house. But the old system produced 25 coalition governments from 1979 until Thaksin's election in 2001. And because many ordinary Thais, voting that year under a liberalized constitution, saw their circumstances improve under Thaksin, even the poor have grown used to the idea that their votes matter. They can hardly be expected to again trust their fates to a clique of "wise men" in Bangkok. 

Nor is there any reason to believe that constitutional tweaks can eliminate the main vices attributed to Thaksinite administrations. The junta has amply demonstrated that unelected governments can resort to populist measures as easily as any other, having disbursed billions in subsidies to mollify rice farmers loyal to the previous government. Weak coalition governments would face even more pressure to buy support. 

Rampant corruption, meanwhile, did not begin with Thaksin's arrival and won't end with his family’s exit from the political scene. Cutting back on graft requires greater transparency, as well as watchdogs that are truly independent. There’s little evidence the new constitution will promote either. 

Worse, returning power to the hands of a murky elite will only undercut the government’s legitimacy and the confidence of long-term investors. The economy has both immediate problems (household debt above 85 percent of gross domestic product, flatlining exports) and structural challenges (it needs to move beyond the low-end manufacturing that has powered its economy since the 1980s). This will take more than increased spending on infrastructure, as the junta has pledged. It calls for retraining workers and overhauling the education system. Above all, investors need to see a stable system of governance with clear checks and balances, and participation from parties across the spectrum. Otherwise there’s little guarantee that the next political crisis won't derail reform. 

The solution isn’t to disempower politicians, as if they were some malign species. Only voters can give government legitimacy. And the only true, sustainable check on any future Thai government is the threat of being voted out of power. The way for opposition parties to defeat Thaksin’s popular electoral machine is to do the hard work of developing a national agenda and appeal. Any constitution that tries to get around basic democracy will only ensure that another one needs to be written in a few years.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.