From Westminster to Washington
25 April 2005
On 6 February 2005, Thailand elected a president. Of course, it didn't really. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary system headed by a prime minister. But putting it this way highlights the big change which has come over Thailand's political system in the last few years. Most of this has been the result of the 1997 constitution. But ways in which the politicians are using the constitution also play a part..
Take the way Thaksin campaigned for this February's election. At the previous polls in 2001, his party's emphasis had been on its campaign platform. This time, the Thai Rak Thai party had an even more elaborate platform, and so did other parties. But these were not the focus of the campaign. This election was about personalities rather than policies.
In his campaign speeches, Thaksin said vote for me because I have done a lot for you in the last four years and I will do a lot for you in the next four too. His party, his government, his political colleagues were hardly mentioned. At some campaign stops, he delivered this “vote for me” pitch without even introducing the party's local candidates. In the same vein, Thaksin reduced the opposition against him to the personality of the party leaders. He lampooned Banyat and told people Banharn had “changed” and was no longer trustworthy. He urged voters to give him a huge majority so that he personally would have more power and less obstruction from any opposition. In many ways, Thaksin campaigned in a very presidential style.
Of course, local factors still played a large part in how people voted. But strikingly, more people voted for Thai Rak Thai on the party list than on their constituency ballot. It seems that many voters who liked a non-TRT candidate in their constituency still plumped for TRT (=Thaksin) when it came to the “national” vote on the party list.
Another major change has happened with scarcely any comment. In Thaksin's new Cabinet, only 8 of the 35 ministers are elected members of parliament. Over the prior twenty years, Thailand's parliamentary system had developed along the lines of the Westminster model from the UK: voters elected MPs, and the prime minister selected a Cabinet from among them. The 1997 constitution introduced the party list along with incentives for ministers to be chosen from among party list MPs rather than constituency MPs. Most ministers in the ten Cabinets of Thaksin's first term were elected party list MPs. But the 1997 constitution does not force the prime minister to select MPs as ministers. And in his recent Cabinet choice, 27 of the 35 ministers are outsiders.
This fact was rather disguised because many of them had been ministers and MPs before. But others are people tied directly to Thaksin himself including a long-standing banker, family doctor, and several political aides. Ministers need have no political base or standing other than their relationship with the prime minister. This new model looks much more like Washington DC than Westminster UK. In the USA, voters directly elect a president who then hand-picks his secretaries-of-state and other minister-like appointees from outside the ranks of elected representatives in the Congress and Senate. Thailand's system is not all the way there, but it has made a big shift in that direction and could shift further.
One key difference from the Washington model is that Thailand has no system of confirmation hearings which allow the elected representatives to scrutinise the background and suitability of the prime minister's choices. Thaksin has told us that the only check-and-balance on himself is his wife, and probably that goes for the rest of the Cabinet too.
Another important change has taken place in the political background. Until a few years ago, the only aides for the prime minister and other ministers were a couple of secretaries and a handful of “advisers” who were all honorary (unpaid) and mostly decorative. Now there is a large new cadre of people equivalent to the “staffers” who litter the American political landscape. These include secretaries, vice-ministers, and multiple teams of advisers. Many are on the payroll of the state or the ruling party or individual patrons. The capsule biographies on TRT's website show that many novice MPs had previously worked in these staffer roles.
In the past, policy was mostly crafted in the bureaucracy because the political wing simply did not have the resources. That has changed dramatically. The decline of some of the expert agencies involved in policy-making in the past (like NESDB) is a consequence.
Taken together, these various shifts add up to a big change in the political system. The recent reforms in Cabinet procedure which further strengthen the power of the prime minister will push this even further. Thailand's system has not moved completely from Westminster to Washington, but it is some way across the Atlantic and rowing hard.
Much of this is directly down to the 1997 constitution. Note that the chief drafter, Bowornsak Uwanno, was schooled in the French legal tradition which is the spiritual godparent of the American (presidential) system. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally, many aspects of a presidential model got written into the charter. Thaksin is filling in some of the blanks by the way he conducts himself as a political leader. And of course it was Bowornsak again, now Cabinet Secretary, who drafted the recent changes in Cabinet practice.