Dire need for elected Senate

Over the past 11 years, Thailand's two constitutions have become increasingly mistrustful of the electorate's judgement when it comes to choosing senators.

While the now-dissolved post-2006 coup charter allowed approximately half of senators to be selected by professional groups, the other half were elected. But the current constitution is taking a big gamble in opting for the selection process to put all the decision-making in the hands of limited groups of people.

With the selection of the first batch of senators taking place early this month, the prospects of having an improved checks-and-balances mechanism in parliament look very dim indeed.

Under a hefty 1.3-billion-baht budget, the Election Commission (EC) previously expected as many as 90,000 people to vie to be selected for the 50 senator seats. But the candidate turnout nationwide was low, standing at a paltry 7,210. The majority consist of independent candidates and the minority of 505 candidates were fielded by 10 social and professional groups.

They will undergo intra-group voting, which will produce a shortlist of 200 candidates from which 50 will be selected by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to join the 200 others it will choose to create the 250-member assembly.

Firstly, the low turnout implies that the 10 professional groups do not give a good representation of people from all careers in all the provinces.

Moreover, potential candidates may not be sure whether they will eventually be picked by the NCPO, simply reaffirming that the selection of senators is not really a merit-based process or one that can be trusted.

Even less transparent is the picking of another 200 Upper House members by the military regime. The NCPO will directly handpick 194 senators from a list of 400 chosen by a committee it will appoint. Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam stressed that these appointed senators are not likely to emerge from an open selection process. There might be too many applicants, which would make vetting their qualifications difficult, he said.

Mr Wissanu is right about the aspect of difficulty. Screening candidates for the Upper House should not be an easy task.

But the NCPO and the charter drafters it appointed make it a simple process. It appears more likely that the committee will approach those with close ties to the regime to take up the senator jobs.

Even more laughable is the last batch of six senators -- where default positions are given to the defence permanent secretary, the supreme commander of the army, the three leaders of the armed forces and the national police chief.

All of these 250 senators will serve in a so-called transition five-year period following the polls planned for next year.

The constitution drafters have also turned the Senate into an influential power broker. They will be allowed to vote in a joint session with the 500-member Lower House to choose a prime minister from lists of political parties. Given their five-year term, they will be able to vote for two prime ministers.

The National Legislative Assembly, whose members are handpicked by the NCPO, has proven to be a rubber-stamping body for the regime, rather than acting as a checks-and-balances mechanism. The group of selected senators is unlikely to function differently.

After the five-year period, another group of 200 senators will also be selected so they also look set to serve those who picked them rather than the public.

Although elected senators in the past were accused of cronyism as many had family ties with serving MPs, they were still chosen by the electorate and were accountable to them.

Thailand is taking a big risk in letting the Upper House come under the influence of the privileged few who will select them. If any amendments to the constitution are to be made by elected MPs after the polls, changing the senator selection to an election process must certainly be one of them.

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