OPINION: Thailand’s flawed constitution is hindering its coronavirus response

What does coronavirus have to do with the constitution?

In October, I argued in a piece that to convince people of the pressing need for a constitutional revision, it is imperative to make a clear link between the constitution and bread and butter issues.

With the Covid-19 disease officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), set against the prospect of an impending global recession, a discussion about constitutional revision seems like a pleasure one can ill-afford. 

But this conversation becomes most instructive when the constitution’s flaws are exposed by the current crisis. 

It is clear, after all, that the current government has been ill-equipped to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Mistake after mistake has been made. Take, for example, the Ministry of Public Health repeatedly failing to set clear policies on quarantining tourists, or the Ministry of Commerce’s inability to ensure that medical facilities have sufficient supplies of masks. 

And, of course, the latest uproar: allegations that Palang Pracharat MP Thamanat Prompao’s aide was hoarding masks, an outrage that even the government’s staunchest supporters found essentially impossible to defend. 

That governments all over the world have been flubbing their responses to the crisis is true — a quick glance at the White House’s denialism in the face of overwhelming scientific proof proves this point — but Thailand’s ills have structural, constitutional causes. 

Why is it that Thamanat, a figure long unpopular, has not been fired from his role as deputy agricultural minister?

Why is it that Anutin Charnvirakul, in his post as public health minister in order to pursue the Bhumjaithai Party’s marijuana policies, continues to oversee the coronavirus crisis despite the fact that he is increasingly and visibly out of his depth?

Why is it that at a time of immense public confusion, when the government requires a strong and unified response, the Democrats are in a state of open rebellion?

The structural cause for this is that we have a weak, 20-party coalition government that is a direct result of the 2017 constitution’s electoral rules. The mixed-member proportional system that the constitution drafters opted for was designed to create such a government. By ensuring that no party would come close to netting a parliamentary majority, only a fractured government could have emerged from the 2019 election. 

Therefore, even as the scandal-ridden Thamanat comes under fire, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha must keep him on as a key figure in the coalition: its enforcer.

Even as the Ministry of Public Health has continued to repeatedly bungle the crisis, Prayut needs to keep the increasingly powerful Bhumjaithai Party on board.  

But at the same time, as the Democrats realize the damage that their party’s image has received from being a part of this coalition, and the outsize influence that they have as the third-largest party in the coalition, they are able to credibly rebel and distract the government even at this time of chaos.

Yet the 2017 constitution ensures that there is no easy way to topple the Prayut government, even if he were to lose a majority in the lower house. With the help of the appointed Senate, the prime minister can be re-elected. And so the government, as embattled as it is, will remain in power.

Indeed, the greatest tragedy of the 2017 constitution is that it produces governments that are entirely unaccountable to the people, even those who helped elect it. Several government-sympathetic pages on social media may have cried out against the government’s coronavirus fiasco, but there is no reason for Prayut to heed them.

These are only the most visible manifestations of the flaws of this constitutionally-produced, unwieldy government means. More issues are likely to be found the deeper one digs. One worth looking into would be the degree to which the fact that important ministries had to be allocated to different parties to placate them has obstructed cooperation, at a time when such cooperation is extremely necessary for an effective fighting front against the epidemic.

It is thus a fallacy to believe that the constitution does not matter for concrete outcomes in governance. The electoral rules of the 1997 constitution, for example, was designed to produce strong executives. Such a government right now would have a distinctly better ability to respond to coronavirus than the unstable, unwieldy cabinet we have today. 

Of course, that constitution also led directly to Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, hence the reason why military-affiliated constitution drafters since have over-learned the lessons of writing a charter that would produce governments of such strength again.

But even those who revile Thaksin must not let their fear prevent them from hearing the truth. We now have a government, made incompetent because of structural defects. Yet we cannot remove the government or even meaningfully reshuffle the cabinet because of structural, constitutional defects.

Those structural defects must be resolved.

This is far from being the time to ignore the issue of political mechanisms. This is the discussion we must have now in order to produce better governance and better crisis response. More than ever, it is the opportunity to discuss the merits of constitutional revision. 

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