VETERAN senators believe indirect election is the best method yet for picking people to fill the Upper House of Parliament, given that use of only directly elected or selected senators both have loopholes that prevent them from performing to their full potential.
Introduced to the Thai Parliament in 1946, senators were initially appointed to mainly scrutinise legislation. Then, the 1997 Constitution, for the first time, called for members of the Senate to be elected.
The 1997 charter, acclaimed as the most democratic constitution in Thai history, also granted elected senators the authority to impeach politicians, amid hope of empowering “more voices of people” in the political arena.
However, a decade later, in 2007, a new charter written after the coup that ousted Thaksin Shinawatra a year earlier, designed a mixed Senate, consisting of both selected and elected senators, in a bid to create balance in the chamber. The result, however, was two types of senators so incompatible that journalists called them “fish from two different waters”.
Eight years on, the junta-appointed Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) revealed last Thursday that it will include an indirect election method of choosing senators in the new charter. Candidates will be initially selected from 20 groups before being elected by members of those bodies. Details will be finalised this week on how that would be done, the CDC said.
Now, senators who have served terms in parliament, either via an election or selection, have given their views on the pros and cons of the different methods of choosing members for the Upper House.
Rosana Tositrakul, a former senator elected to represent Bangkok in the “mixed” Senate in 2008, felt both types of senators were equally vulnerable to interference by people with influence.
Rosana recalled the time when she joined her colleagues impeaching former Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and former Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama in 2010. She observed that some senators had acquaintances with two former high-ranking officers.
“There were anonymous votes so I have no idea who voted for what. But before they were done, I could see some senators greeting and contacting Somchai and Noppadon,” she said.
Rosana and her Senate bloc had filed a petition to the National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC) to impeach the two high-ranking officers, even though they were out of office since 2008. The impeachment, Rosana and her colleagues thought, must be applied as Somchai in 2008 authorised the police to use force against anti-government demonstrators blocking the Parliament, causing two deaths and injury to thousands.
In the same year, Noppadon signed a joint communique in support of Cambodia’s bid to seek World Heritage status for Preah Vihear temple without seeking approval from parliament, a move that may have cost Thailand disputed territory.
On March 9, 2010, the Senate voted 76 to 49 to impeach Somchai, before voting 57 to 55 to impeach Noppadon three days later.
Despite obtaining a majority of votes, these sanctions could not be carried out because the 2008 charter stated that votes must exceed three fifths of the 150 senators – more than 90 votes from all senators – to impeach politicians.
“It has been common in the House that senators have backstage connections, no matter if they were elected or chosen to the House,” she added.
Despite being more independent from political influence compared to senators who were elected, selected senators could still be backed by outside players.
“There have been a number of [administration-related] programmes provided by governmental institutes and agencies,” she said. “Those programmes are where officers and bureaucrats, including potential senators, gather. These places are where they gain connections, which later affect their work in the chamber.”
However, Rosana felt the selection method could reach potential senators with a variety of backgrounds. A “merit system”, she said, could be applied to create the best senator selection process, she said, although she could not figure out how best to achieve that.
Rosana’s best effort to create a process to select senators was during her term in the now-defunct National Reform Council, where she proposed an indirect election in the hope of achieving a fine balance between election- and selection-based procedures.
She proposed that some publicly recognised senators, like her, could initially select some potential candidates before presenting them |to the public for election.
“This would help senators of various backgrounds, gain public recognition as candidates, and allow people to have an election process. Unfortunately, this idea was not approved.”
But Rosana also ponders the roles for senators. “For instance, if senators are to impeach politicians, they must come from an election only. Having selected senators to perform such roles could be seen as undemocratic practice, On the other hand, however, if we limit selected senators to only scrutinising law and let independent agencies take care of the impeachment, would the agencies be reliable enough for such jobs?” she said.
As an alternative, Rosana believed that politicians who do wrong could be automatically impeached once they are found guilty by responsible courts. “Doing that would solve the concern over who has to impeach politicians.”
For Wallop Tangkananurak, an election gives more legitimacy when they serve in Parliament. He said this after his experience of being a senator in the appointed Senate in 1996 and a Bangkok senator in the elected Senate in 2000.
“Elected senators enter the Parliament because people approved them, while the selected ones were there because a few people selected them,” he said. “This creates distinct privilege between the two, in my opinion.”
His roles in the two terms differed. Assigned mainly to scrutinise law during the first term, Wallop was also authorised to impeach politicians in the second term. But he was never able to strip any politician of their position, as the House always voted down impeachment moves.
And like Rosana, Wallop agreed there should be an indirect election process. Being chosen by the public, senators would have more moral weight when putting proposals in parliamentary meetings. They also tend to be more independent of political influence than purely elected senators, he said.
There was concern also about who initially selects candidates, he said, noting that selected candidates were only chosen by a few people – mostly “experts from courts. Their legal knowledge was undeniable, but their social knowledge might be another story.”
Currently a member of the National Legislative Assembly, Wallop suggested that senators’ roles be made clear first before further steps on finding how to pick them. But he said senators should not have the power to impeach politicians regardless of their origin. “To me, senators should only scrutinise law, impeach officers only appointed by senators, and conduct national administration.”
Former Senate President Suchon Chaleekrua agreed that senators should be sought depending on their designated roles. “Senators from selection or indirect election should be authorised to only scrutinise laws, while elected senators could have rights of impeachment.”
But Suchon thought senators should no longer have the job of impeaching politicians as the public would raise doubts about potential lobbying and interference in how senators’ vote. The whole Senate should also only come from one process, to avoid a possible split.
An appointed senator in 1996 and an elected senator in 2000, Suchon recalled an occasion when the Upper House voted to impeach nine anti-graft commissioners found to have allegedly boosted their own salaries
“It was, however, one of a few times we senators could successfully carry out impeachment. But our roles there were actually simply to raise hands for or against the sanction,” Suchon said, stop short of elaborating.
Suchon suggested that independent agencies could take the impeachment role, with an appeal court set up for political office holders to build strength in the legal process for politicians.