By Alemayehu G. Mariam
Thief! Thief! Catch the election thief! The Constitutional Court of Thailand caught a boatload of election thieves last week. Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and his six-party governing coalition were convicted of theft of the December 2007 elections. They were found guilty of vote buying, vote rigging, conspiracies to defraud voters and other fraudulent electoral practices. Chat Chonlaworn, President of the Thai Constitutional Court, explained: “As the court decided to dissolve the People Power Party, therefore the leader of the party and party executives must be banned from politics for five years. The court had no other option.” That is indeed the mandate of the Thai Constitution. Chat said dissolving Somchai’s coalition government was necessary “to set a political standard and an example. Dishonest political parties undermine Thailand’s democratic system.” A total of 60 party leaders, including Somchai, and various members of parliament were sent packing by the Constitutional Court to political purgatory for 5 years.
Honor Among Thieves: “We Will Abide By the Law”
Somchai took it all in stride: “It is not a problem. My duty is over. I was not working for myself. Now I will be a full-time citizen.” Somchai had been clinging to power for months until the Constitutional Court gave him the boot. Protesters had occupied Thailand’s Government House for months forcing lawmakers to meet elsewhere; and more recently, they had shut down Bangkok’s airports to pressure Somchai’s government to resign. In the end, there was honor among Thai’s election thieves. Official spokesman Nattawut Sai-kau said the prime minister and the six-party coalition will accept the judgment of the Court: “We will abide by the law. The coalition parties will meet together to plan for its next move soon.”
Hooray for Thailand’s Independent Judiciary and Independent Election and Counter Corruption Commissions!
The supremacy of the rule of law in Thailand was not accident or a fluke. Robust enforcement of the Thai Constitution is an integral part of the architecture and design of Thailand’s democracy. Electoral integrity, constitutional mechanisms to fight official corruption and enforcement of high ethical standards for public officials represent a substantial part of the Thai Constitution. There is an entire section of the Constitution dealing with the powers and functions of an independent election commission. That commission, for instance, has the power to disqualify a candidate and call a re-vote in the constituency if it finds convincing evidence that the election or voting did not proceed in an honest and fair manner.
There are strict constitutional ethics rules for all Thai executive, legislative and judicial officers. For instance, the prime minister, his cabinet, lawmakers and judges are prohibited from holding any financial interest in an ongoing business. They must create a blind trust. They are also prohibited from intervening in matters which create a conflict of interest or the appearance of impropriety in the recruitment, appointment, transfer, promotion or removal of executive or other officials. Many ethics prohibitions cover not only the officials but also their spouses and children.
The anti-corruption provisions of the Thai Constitution are downright awesome. For instance, “A person holding a position of Prime Minister, Minister, member of the House of Representatives, senator,… who is under the circumstance of unusual wealthiness indicative of the commission of corruption, malfeasance in office, malfeasance in judicial office… [and] fails to comply with ethical standard, may be removed from office by the Senate.” (Italics added.) Public corruption is vigorously pursued by the independent National Counter Corruption Commission which investigates and assembles evidence for Senate deliberation and removal action. If the Counter Corruption Commission votes by a majority vote that there is a prima facie case (sufficient probable cause) of corruption, the corruption suspect will be suspended from his position pending Senate action. The Commission is also required to refer corruption prosecutions to the office of the Prosecutor General for criminal action. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra became a fugitive from justice after he left Thailand and sought political asylum in Britain while his corruption trial was pending. An official removed from office for corruption is barred from holding elected office or entering government service for 5 years.
Fault Not in the Stars
Shakespeare penned in Julius Ceasar: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/ But in ourselves, that we are underlings.” The destiny of nations and their citizens is not engraved by fate or determined by the wheels of fortune. Nations are made or broken by the actions and omissions of their citizens. The fate of Thailand and Ethiopia is not to be found in the location of their stars in the galaxy of nations that live in democracies and others that swelter under dictatorships, but rather in the hands of their respective peoples who are no longer content to be “underlings”. Thailand was not destined or pre-destined to be a functioning democracy, nor is Ethiopia doomed to perpetually suffer the slings and arrows of a vicious dictatorship. Indeed, Thailand has its own history of successive military dictatorships and coups dating back to the 1930s. But few of these military dictatorships survived for any length of time, including the last one that overthrew Thaskin just over a year ago. The reason simply is that the common people of Thailand, backed by a vigorous, independent and uncompromising judiciary, and independent election and counter corruption commissions, stood up to the military dictators, and demanded restoration of democratic government. Time and again, the villainous military dictators obliged and bowed before the people of Thailand. That explains why Tonkla Maksuk, a volunteer nurse at the airport protest, was moved to declare her joy upon hearing the Constitutional Court’s decision to ban Somchai and his gang of election thieves from politics: “I feel that this is still a country of laws.”
One can not help thinking about the 2005 Ethiopian elections in the context of the Thai Constitutional Court’s verdict against Somchai’s government and the vigilant investigative roles played by the Election and National Counter Corruption Commissions. Thailand, a country of 67 million people, offers a live example of a developing and evolving democracy. We can be sure from the Thai experience that democracy is not some kind of twisted intellectual game of intrigue and Machiavellian machinations, or a mind game of political tricks and illusions. Democracy is quintessentially about popular sovereignty (the people are the ultimate bosses). As Thomas Jefferson aptly put it, “When the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” We can humbly add, “Where there is the rule of law and an independent judiciary (with independent election and national counter corruption commissions thrown in for good measure), the people’s liberty is secure; and their government should justly feel insecure in its fear of the people.”