Opinion: Delayed local elections expose failure in decentralization

Last week, the voters of Kaohsiung, Taiwan voted to throw out their mayor. The disgraced politician, Han Kuo-yu, had just earlier this year been on the presidential ballot. Now he has the dubious honour of being the first local official to be recalled in Taiwan history. 

Given the depth of anger at Han, who was accused of neglecting his duties while campaigning for president, it was no surprise that he was destined to lose his office. But in Thailand, to recall a local official one dislikes is a novel concept.

Indeed, people can hardly even keep provincial governors they do like. Narongsak Osottanakorn, the Chiang Rai governor who was elevated to hero status after the 2018 cave rescue, was unceremoniously transferred to Phayao province afterwards. The people of Chiang Rai were, of course, not consulted; this was a decision made from Bangkok. 

Nor, for now, can people choose these officials. Except in Bangkok and Pattaya city, governors are centrally appointed. Only at the tambon level and below are officials elected. But Thailand has not held any local elections since prior to the military coup. Elections for Bangkok governor were last held in 2013, for example, while in many places elections for local officials have not been conducted since 2011. 

In the interim, many elected local leaders have not continued in their posts. The NCPO first announced the suspension of local elections in July 2014; then, in May 2016, it announced that provincial governours would be allowed to appoint local council members in the event that a council is dissolved. When Bangkok Governor Sukhumband Paribatra was removed from his post, his replacement, Asawin Kwanmueang, was appointed by the prime minister. 

This week, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Kruea-ngarm announced that local elections would have to be delayed because funds originally allocated to them have already been used up by the pandemic response. A bizarre excuse, to be sure, but one we shall leave aside for the more substantive point: in many places, local elections will not have happened for a decade. 

Thus power remains concentrated for the foreseeable future in the hands of unelected appointees who have no need to concern themselves with responsiveness and free to pursue a policy program that no one voted for. 

That is a failure of accountable government. Instead of obstructing the conduct of local elections and further centralizing power, the government should be swinging the pendulum the other way and exploring how to decentralize. The “reforms” that the government enjoyed discussing should have included opening up more positions, including provincial governors, for election. 

How does it make sense, for example, that people in Bangkok are allowed to elect their governor, while people in the provinces should be subject to the bureaucratic whims of the Ministry of the Interior? To continue this principle is essentially to say: only some people in Thailand deserve accountable government. 

And beyond the benefits for local administration, greater decentralization would also pay dividends for national politics. 

In the 1990s, when greater decentralization and devolution of power occurred, it looked like Thailand was on its way to more effective local governance. But skepticism from central ministries led to a reluctance to actually transfer power from Bangkok, and local governments continue to depend heavily on the central budget. 

But as Professor Peter Warr of Australian National University has argued, Thailand faces the “incompatibility of a regionally divided populace and a highly centralized government.” Winning control of the central government in Bangkok becomes a zero-sum game. A matter of winner takes all. 

Take a glance at how Palang Pracharath MPs are now engaging in desperate factional infighting — ostensibly, some say, so they can be in the roles they need to oversee the administration of the 1.9 trillion baht coronavirus stimulus package.

This is not simply a progressive talking point. There is more consensus behind this principle than one may think. Even conservative icon Suthep Thaugsuban has argued that Thailand should move to direct elections of provincial governors, or at the very least consultation with local councils on their appointments. More power and fiscal responsibility, he said, should also be devolved to local agencies.

Of course, there is bound to be opposition to the principle of decentralization, and some have raised concerns that this could ultimately lead to too weak a central government. Yet it is also worth a reminder that decentralization is hardly a radical concept. Japan, like Thailand a unitary state with a constitutional monarchy, allow prefectural governors, assemblies, mayors and municipal assemblies to be elected. Even China, as much of a bastion of autocracy as it is, allow direct elections of local People’s Congresses.

What Thailand needs is more, not less, decentralization. Instead of clinging to the archaic concept of an over-mighty capital imposing its will on far-flung provinces, Thailand can take an alternative route that leads to less conflict and more accountability. 

Unfortunately, as it has been for the past five years, the government is unprepared to actually conduct any meaningful reform of Thai politics. 

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