Unicameral parliament: possibility of a more democratic legislature

In an era of political tension and ideological conflict, Thai society has reached a turning point. While the military government has paved its way to maintaining power, a new pro-democracy movement is trying to put rights and power back into the hands of the people.

The military-appointed senate is one element whose power and origins are questioned as an obstacle to democratization. For example, opposition parties have proposed an amendment to Section 272 which currently allows appointed senators to vote in the selection of a Prime Minister and Sections 270-271 relating to senators’ authority in legislation involving national reform and in legislation seriously affecting the administration of justice and amendment of penalties in cases of official corruption.

As dissatisfaction with the Senate is getting clearer and louder, the idea of unicameralism has emerged in the drive to real democracy in Thailand.

Historically related to military intervention

After the Siamese Revolution in 1932, Thailand initially adopted a unicameral parliamentary system with elected and appointed MPs. Appointees acted as consultants for elected MPs.

The 1946 constitution transformed the unicameral parliament to a bicameral one with a House of Representatives and a Phruetthasapha (Senate). 80 senators were selected by indirect election and had a major role in scrutiny, advice and acting as a check and balance to the work of MPs.

A year later, the 1947 constitution, criticized by some as a setback in Thai democratization as it increased the power of the monarch, determined that senators were to be appointed by the King and name of this house was changed from Phruetthasapha to Wutthisapha.

However, unicameral parliaments were re-established in Thailand when the military overthrew the government, including the 1952 coup by Field Marshal Phibun, which re-instated the 1932 unicameral parliament model with elected and appointed MPs, the 1976 coup led by Adm Sangad Chaloryu which established a Sapha Patirup Pokkrong Pandin (Reform Council), the 1977 coup under the nominal authority of Adm Sangad Chaloryu establishing a Sapha Nitibanyat Haeng Chat (National Legislative Assembly), and the 2017 coup by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha also establishing a Sapha Nitibanyat Haeng Chat.

It could be said that no unicameral parliament has ever been established by the people’s consensus and it seems to tighten the power of military dictators who disrupt democratization in Thailand. Nevertheless, bicameral legislatures also fail to promote democratization when the senate is appointed by the military.

According to Thamrongsak Petchlertanan, a political historian, a Senate seems to be unnecessary for Thailand since its role as a mentor for MPs is merely a political pretext used by civil servants to control democracy. The conflict between power from appointments and power from elections has been going on for more than 80 years.

Thamrongsak Petchlertanan

Elected MPs are beholden with a duty to respond to the people’s demands, while the military and civil servants believe that they are the country’s leaders so they expand the bureaucracy, centralize power and appoint military personnel to control major ministries.

“The 1997 constitution is the prototype that the military would most try to obstruct. So they must control and direct elections. They do not want MPs to have power to fight with a military state. They do not want any strong political party to emerge.”

Civil society group calls for unicameral parliament

While Thailand currently maintains its tradition of bicameralism, the political situation has generated critiques of military-appointed senators and calls for an entirely elected senate. A civil society group called Constitution Lab (ConLab) goes even further.

Parit “Itim” Wacharasindhu, a co-founder of ConLab, made a speech at the opening of the Re-Solution group, a network of 4 groups (iLaw, Move Forward Party, Progressive Movement and ConLab), that are calling for a people’s constitution.

Parit “Itim” Wacharasindhu

Parit “Itim” Wacharasindhu

ConLab has proposed the idea of a unicameral parliament by illustrating the problems of the current appointed senate which include

1.) power to vote (alongside 500 elected MPs) on who becomes Prime Minister, which means mathematically that 1 vote from each member of the 100-member Senate selection committee is equivalent to 2 million votes from the general electorate

2.) power to appoint members of the Independent Organizations and power to vote on laws related to the national reform plan, which gives the Senate excessive political control.

3.) an appointments process that was marred with conflict of interest – of the 10-member Senate Selection Committee, 7 members of the selection committee appointed themselves to become Senators whereas another 3 members chose to appoint their relatives

4.) limited diversity in the professional make-up of the Senate, with 40% of Senators disproportionately coming from military and police backgrounds.

5.) failure to perform its function of checks and balances effectively - in the first year all 145 motions that were sent from the lower house to the Senate were passed, with an average approval of 96.1%.

Parit also said that by democratic standards, the power of the Senate and how its members were selected must be congruent and proportional. If senators were appointed, like the U.K., their power should be limited. But If senators were elected, like the U.S., they can democratically have more legislative power.

Thailand has historically not been too successful in implementing either of these models. The current set of appointed senators from the 2017 constitution wield excessive power, while elected senators in the 1997 constitution were not entirely effective in holding the executive branch to account due to a largely similar political base.

Parit then explained the benefits of unicameralism including faster passage of the law in a fast-changing world where agility is important, lower expenses amounting to at least 1,200 million THB per year, less time and effort required to design the ‘perfect’ Senate that can achieve an optimal balance between its powers and the origin of its members, and more and in line with global trends for unicameralism amongst countries that are – like Thailand – unitary and parliamentary in nature.

He also provided solutions for who would take over previous roles and responsibilities of the Senate, if it was abolished.

  1. To provide expertise in specific legislation: Parliamentary Committees in the Lower House can call on more experts or increase their quota of non-MP experts on the Committees.
  2. To protect the interest of provinces that have lower populations: the policy of decentralization would be a better solution for this issue.
  3. To appoint committee members of Independent Organizations: this power can be transferred to the lower house – if we want to ensure neutrality, we can add a further condition that any committee members must get a double approval from both a majority of government MPs, and a majority of opposition MPs.
  4. To recall political office-holders: the power can be transferred directly to the people so people can petition to initiate a request for recall.
  5. To check and balance the executive branch: there are 2 solutions.
    1. Increasing the power of the Opposition by automatically giving more important parliamentary positions to the Opposition, such as Vice Speaker of the House, or Chair of the Annual Budget Committee in Parliament;
    2. Equipping people with the ability to directly examine the government by increasing access to Government data or other crowdsourced investigative platforms.

Parit told Prachatai about 3 missions of ConLab: Firstly, they work to educate people about the problems of the current constitution and to lay out potential solutions and design choices for a new constitution draft. For example, if we want to move away from the current problematic model of the Senate, which model is most preferable: bicameral legislature (elected or appointed senators) or unicameral legislature.

Secondly, ConLab acts as a platform to collect data and opinions of people about their preferences regarding the Constitution. Parit explained that the word ConLab plays on words “Constitution Laboratory” and “Collaboration”. They organized ConLab workshops all over the country and the workshops were in a form of hackathon-style event where people come together to brainstorm and draft their ideal constitution across key areas, such as freedoms and rights, the parliamentary system, and the electoral system. Then, ConLab would collect data in each workshop and publicize the data on people’s preferences.

Thirdly, ConLab collaborated with other agencies in working to mobilize constitutional amendments on-ground. For example, in 2020, they had collaborated with iLaw to collect signatures for an amendment proposal submitted to Parliament.

The constitutional amendment proposal submission at the parliament in September 2020.

Parit also said that even though iLaw’s proposal was rejected, some may see that another constitution campaign in 2021 is necessary because there are several issues that remain unsolved and could become problematic, for example Section 272 that gives the Senate power to vote on the Prime Minister, or state attempts to limit discussions about Chapters 1 and 2 of the Constitution. Regarding the controversial the lèse majesté law, people can also submit a proposal to amend the legislation to Parliament if the petition collects more than 10,000 signatures.

Possible impossibility

The idea of unicameralism seems to be a rational solution but its possibility is still questioned.

Due to its reputation of being the choice of military juntas, it might not be feasible because to amend the constitution needs the senators’ vote.

An amendment to the charter needs no less than 84 senators to vote to accept the motion in the first reading. Even worse, one-tenth of senators have the right to submit a petition to the Constitutional Court to rule whether the draft is unconstitutional.

The power of senators to deny the possibility of unicameralism was shown in the vote on a motion to remove the undemocratic power of the Senate to vote in the selection of the PM (the amendment of Sections 159 and 272). 56 senators voted for the motion in the first reading, well short of the minimum of 84 votes.

Even though the number seems positive, will the Senate be willing to abolish their own power? Should we be discouraged from promoting a unicameral legislature?

Research published by National Democratic Institute for International Affairs , an organization funded in part by the US government and loosely affiliated with the Democrat Party, shows that 55 countries (54 with a unitary form of government and 1 with a federal form) out of 83 have a unicameral parliamentary system.  (The research does not discuss the case of Thailand.)

Attempts to change the parliamentary system in Sweden took more than 20 years before converting to a unicameral parliament. The Swedish bicameral system consisted of elected upper and lower houses based on the U.S. and Norwegian models. However, the clash of ideologies between 2 houses (a conservative majority in the upper house and a liberal majority in the lower house) caused political deadlock that was eventually solved by changing to a unicameral system in 1967. 

In New Zealand, the first reform demand was for the upper house to be elected but the demand was not accepted.  Abolition of the upper house was proposed by Prime Minister Sidney Holland of the National Party in 1947 on the grounds that members of the upper house were appointed by the government of the day and had little autonomy. So new majority members of the upper house, a so-called “suicide squad”, were appointed to pass the bill and the abolition bill went in effect on 1 January 1951.

Comparing countries that are unitary states like Thailand, the above examples show that the transformation process into a unicameral system was time-consuming.

Therefore, it might not be impossible for Thailand but would require a lot of work from civil society to achieve social consensus. But details may need to be discussed further as disruption of democratization by the military is important to take into account in the possible establishment of democratic unicameral parliament in Thailand.

“2020 is the year that demonstrated to us that the unexpected can happen”, said Parit. “I think that if we recall to10 December last year (2019), on the day that ConLab was established, even we did not expect that the Constitution issue would gain as much attention and momentum as it did in 2020.”

“Even the government was forced to respond to the issue and submit a proposal to Parliament to kickstart the process of drafting a new constitution. So, we should not limit the possibilities of this country based on the past actions or behaviour of this government. We simply need to find new ways to increase awareness, mobilize the people and drive society forward,” said Parit.

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