Court, constitutions and politics

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Tuesday, December 9th 2008

Recently, Thailand burst into the news when opposition political parties locked down two of the country’s airports, disrupting incoming and outgoing traffic for an eight-day period. Some 300,000 travellers were left stranded.The protesters had also taken their grouses to Government House which they had occupied since August. These were efforts to force the prime minister, Somchai Wongsamat, to resign. Although he refused, the constitutional court dissolved his People’s Power Party (PPP), effectively terminating his government. The court found that the PPP had committed electoral fraud, and Somchai and other party officials were banned from holding office for five years. In a way this was face-saving for the protesters because the siege at the airports had become very unpopular.

It was not the first time that an incumbent prime minister had been removed from office. Three months before, another prime minister, Samrak Sundarajev, was ousted for violating the constitution by taking a second job. He had apparently, received the princely sum of $2,300 for hosting a few episodes of a TV cooking programme. Samrak was actually renominated by the PPP, but the court would have none of that. It was then that he turned to Somchai whose goose was literally cooked because the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), a party comprised of activists, ethnic Chinese, businessmen, and staunch royalists, violently opposed anyone connected to Thaksin Shinawatra who had been prime minister until toppled by a military coup. Thaksin is now in exile in Britain. The truth is that no PPP member would have suited the PAD.

Thaksin is central to understanding recent politics in Thailand. A billionaire businessman, he was first elected prime minister in 2001 and was re-elected in 2005. Battle lines between the two political parties were drawn. The PPP, led by Thaksin, had the support of the rural poor. The PAD, on the other hand, had that of the urban middle class and elite, for whom it spoke. The PAD membership despised Thaksin. During his tenure of office, he had pursued some distinctive policies, encouraging public health and education, waged war against drugs, and boosted energy issues and international relations. His cabinet was replete with academics. However, he was found short in the area of human rights.

The PAD virtually hated anyone who was associated with Thaksin. For example, Samak, Thaksin’s successor, was regarded as the latter’s puppet. Sonchai who followed Samak was married to Thaksin’s sister, another factor which made him anathema to the PAD.

What is striking about the Thai efforts to grapple with a working democracy is their commitment to it. They have tried to fashion seventeen constitutions since the constitutional monarchy was introduced in 1932 after the reign of absolutist kings. Their constitution-making is somewhat akin to the efforts of gone-by Latin American states which introduced a new constitution virtually every Monday morning. The basic Thai constitution is a perfect model of democracy – a constitutional monarchy with a prime minster as head of government, executive and legislative branches, constitutional checks and balances, including an independent judiciary. The problem, as with all constitutions, is to breathe life into a carefully written document. In the Thais’ case, there were occasions when the constitution was amended to suit sectional interests. Interestingly, the monarchy had proved to be a stabilising force in times of crisis. King Bhomibal is enormously popular and well-respected and had occasionally stepped in to defuse political crises and halt bloodshed. But the 81-year-old king is now ailing and unable to make any type of intervention.

The role of the courts is very significant. They have stepped in time and again to remove prime ministers whom they believed have committed infractions of the law. Their power is somewhat reminiscent of the US Supreme Court which decided to throw the 2000 presidential election in George Bush’s direction.

The four-month campaign by protesters, especially the blockade of the airports, has left a negative impact on Thailand’s image. The siege left thousands stranded during the tourist high season, disrupted exports, and becalmed the Thai stock market. Holiday officials say that tourism losses could run to $4.2 billion. Instructive for the Thais is that they should bring their constitutions alive and have them suffused with the spirit of the people. It may be also useful for the political parties to follow Obama’s mantra of reaching out to each other after elections. Easier said than done.

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