Thailand Needs More Democracy

Ready for Sunday's vote.

Photographer: MADAREE TOHLALA/AFP/Getty Images

The military junta now ruling Thailand is intent on ratifying a new constitution that would entrench the influence of unelected officials over future governments. But Thais preparing to vote on the document this Sunday should be wary. What their country needs isn’t less democracy, but more.

QuickTake Thailand's Troubled Democracy

Though long and complicated, the proposed constitution has a simple goal: to hem in popularly elected politicians with new rules, voting procedures and institutions dominated by unelected Thai elites. A revamped electoral system would confer an advantage on smaller parties, thus encouraging weak coalition governments. The upper house of parliament would be appointed rather than elected and could decide the next prime minister, who also wouldn’t have to be elected. Various unaccountable bodies -- from the Constitutional Court to an anti-corruption agency -- would have broad powers to disqualify candidates, monitor budgets and otherwise constrain government policies.

If it passes, the new constitution is less likely to foster calm than renewed political protests. It represents yet one more attempt by Bangkok power brokers to defenestrate parties loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose power base lies in the poor and populous north and northeast of the country. Those voters have grown accustomed to the power of the ballot box. They can’t simply be expected to accept a long-term diminution of their rights.

Concentrating power also has to raise doubts in the minds of foreign investors. There’s no reason to think it’ll result in more sober economic policy making. The junta itself has already resorted to Thaksin-style populist policies in order to mollify Thai farmers; any new government will be tempted to do the same.

While the constitution demands that those future governments adhere to the junta’s 20-year “national strategy,” that alone is unlikely to reassure companies contemplating long-term investments in Thailand. The strategy is a broad statement of goals. What businesses desire most is predictability -- a confidence that Thailand has settled on a political system broadly acceptable to all parts of the country and all rungs of society. This constitution can hardly make that claim.

Finally, counting on a few “wise men” to clean up the system is a poor bet. Far better would be a system that increases transparency and accountability. More power needs to be devolved to provinces so that politics becomes less of a winner-takes-all scramble in Bangkok. To provide a check in parliament, Thailand needs to develop an opposition party with truly national appeal. Civil society and the media need to be strengthened rather than intimidated and suppressed as they’ve been under junta rule.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-Ocha has suggested that, if this constitution is rejected, he’ll ram through his own version. But that would carry even less legitimacy. The only way for Thailand to reach a stable and lasting compromise is to widen the discussion -- to hold free parliamentary elections and allow a proper debate among the public and its representatives about the contours of a new constitution (there are plenty to choose from).

Such a process would undoubtedly be long, uncertain and messy. But Thailand’s political divisions run deep. There are no shortcuts to healing them.

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