Why having a senate is good (but not one appointed by military)

After the landslide election for Move Foward Party on Sunday, speculation has been rife about the formation of a government. Convincing the senators to vote for Pita Limjaroenrat is the story de jour.

Due to its controversial nature, and the fact that it is appointed by the military, people are more interested in the body than ever before.

What’s more, the hashtag #สวมีไว้ทำไม (why do we have senators) is trending on Twitter.

As a Move Foward voter, here is why that train of thought may be problematic. Twitter users probably posed this question with varying degrees of sarcasm, but here is a serious answer. 

Senators exist for a reason. They can function as ‘houses of review’, by which they are appointed or elected (in theory) because of their expertise and experience in certain legislative matters. Or in other times, they are elected or appointed to represent and protect minority groups.

In Thailand, the 1997 constitution provides special powers for senators. Apart from reviewing legislation, senators may pose questions for the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, which are important methods of scrutiny. Furthermore, they can appoint members of the judiciary and other positions vital to the governing of the country. In other words, they have important roles in the functioning of Thailand as mandated by the constitution–and not just this current one but also our previous, more democratic ones. Whether these functions justify their salaries or their positions, however, is a debate for another day. But for now, the message to remember is that, with all the anger online, it may be easy to forget the Senators do have important day-to-day functions.

iLaw has mentioned, in its infographic, that a benefit to not having the upper chamber is that Thailand can pass laws more quickly. But quicker does not mean better: their experience, scrutiny, and input is still invaluable for the country.

I concede that not all democracies do not have senators. According to iLaw, 20 from 31 countries on its infographic do not. But data from just 31 countries may not provide a full picture. Data provided by the Inter-Parlimentary Union shows 82 countries, ranging from full-fledged democracies to authoritarian, with an upper chamber. 

Another important point to make is that it is not uncommon for senators to be unelected. According to the same data set, 22 of the 82 countries with upper chambers appoint their senatorial positions–including the United Kingdom, Canada, and Germany.

Rather than democratic elections, positions in the House of Lords in the United Kingdom have traditionally been selected by appointment, hereditary, or by position (i.e. bishops and archbishops of the Church of England). In Canada, senators are appointed by the Governor General upon advice of the Prime Minister. Despite all its faults, one can hardly say that the United Kingdom or Canada, is not democratic.

This means that the job of the senators is not to represent the views of the majority–in fact, sometimes, they are there precisely to safeguard minority interests. So their so-called ‘undemocratic nature’ in itself is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it is needed as a bulwark against populism; their experiences are a necessary caution against policies that are prima facie appealing but may have unforeseen majoritarian or populist consequences.

That being said, there is a serious problem with the current role of senators in Thai politics. It is not customary for the upper house to have a role in electing the Prime Minister and shaping the executive government. The problem is not that they are appointed and do not align with the will of the people per se–unlike Members of the House of Representatives, that is not their purpose–it is rather that they have the power to elect or abstain from electing a Prime Minister in blatant disregard for the will of the people.

Senators have power to thwart Move Foward’s democratic mandate to form a government, and wrongly so. In 2019, Prayut became prime minister because of the senators’ votes, even though the Pheu Thai won more seats. The same thing may happen again; Pita knows he cannot rely on the senators’ votes and is forming coalitions.

While some senators such as Wutthiphan Wichairat have, in the face of Sunday’s landslide victory for Move Foward, announced that they would not obstruct public opinion, others have come out to say they will not support Move Foward. Senator Jadet Insawang declared that Move Foward does not have his vote; Senator Kittisak Ratanawaraha believes that whoever he votes for to be prime minister must be loyal to the monarchy, and his view is that Move Forward’s policies to abolish Section 112 is contrary to this; Khunyhing Pornthip Rojanasunand has said that she will abstain. 

Because of this, I’m not saying that Thailand’s senate is perfect–on the contrary, I think it is in serious need of reform. But I am also saying that calls to cancel the Senate in the heat of the moment may not be well thought-out. In the end, we cannot force them to vote for the people, but perhaps it would suffice to call them to vote for whoever is best for a nation united behind this party, not for the junta who put them there. 

If that is not enough, then perhaps it is consolation that they are not as united this time, and they are on their way out. We must be patient and bide our time peacefully, lest we provide a justification for another coup. 


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