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Southeast Asian Affairs 2006 THAILAND'S INDEPENDENT AGENCIES UNDER THAKSIN Relentless Gridlock and Uncertainty Alex M. Mutebi Present-day Thailand has a more stable and transparent political system than in the past, when frequent changes in government, often by military intervention, seemed to be the leitmotif of the Thai polity. The last coup in 1991, followed by events in May 1992, where security officers killed at least 50 unarmed civilians during street confrontations in Bangkok, shocked the Thai political system and stimulated a marked change in the kingdom's democratic consolidation. Since then, not only have the armed forces kept out of the operation of the civilian government, but there have also been five successful elections with peaceful transitions. In addition, Thailand's political party system has grown increasing stable over time. In January 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party almost won an absolute majority in the first general election under the new charter, and subsequently absorbed a variety of factions and parties into its fold. During the February 2005 General Elections, TRT established the first-ever popularly elected single party administration as it convincingly defeated four other parties. The 2005 elections were a watershed in Thailand's democracy, as TRT's victory ensured the Prime Minister's hegemonic control over parliament and other key state institutions without the need for coalition partners, legitimizing his seeming insolence towards democratic consultation.1 Whether one labels his regime as "semi-authoritarian", "soft-authoritarian", "diminished democracy", or simply "delegated democracy", there is little doubt that Thaksin's administration has shown greater authoritarian tendencies in comparison to his immediate Alex M. Mutebi is Assistant Professor in the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. 304Alex M. Mutebi predecessors. Thaksin's tenure has been characterized by frequent violations of Thailand's democratic institutions, so much so that his administration has been criticized as close to failing to meet conventional minimum standards for a true democracy.2 Levitsky and Way coined the term "competitive authoritarianism", which is the most apt term to describe Thaksin's type of regime.3 In this type of regime, violations of democratic criteria are both frequent and serious enough to give the incumbent unfair advantage over the opposition. The incumbent routinely abuses state resources, harasses the opposition, and denies them media coverage, and spies on, threatens, harasses, or even arrests government critics.4 This article examines one of the most significant consequences for Thai democracy of Thaksin's hegemonic control over the country's political institutions: the alleged manipulation of independent watchdog agencies by influential interests said to be aligned with the Prime Minister. It examines key milestones regarding four key agencies as examples in which the Thai legislature and judiciary — weak as they may be in the face of a powerful executive — have occasionally become focal points of opposition activity. Despite the fact that Thaksin's TRT enjoys a large majority in the Lower House, opposition and progressive forces, particularly in the Upper House, have used some institutions as arenas of democratic contestation. Likewise, judges in some parts of the judiciary have exploited the combination of their judicial independence and incomplete control by the executive to frustrate actions by the Prime Minister and those around him. High Hopes for the Independent Bodies of the 1997 Constitution A generally non-partisan assembly, selected in January 1997, re-wrote the nation's constitution, which was put into force in October of that year.5 The document, which included 33 articles, contained the standard provisions one might find in the constitutions of Western polyarchies and, in some cases, even more. The constitution also restructured many aspects of both public and non-public sectors such as the legislature, electoral system, judiciary, cabinet, bureaucracy, and so on. One of the main reforms of the new constitution was the establishment of a number of independent agencies to provide checks and balances in the political system. Among the most notable were those aimed at balancing and controlling administrative power (including a Constitutional Court, Administrative Courts, a National Committee on Human Rights, a State Audit Commission, and an Thailand's Independent Agencies under Thaksin: Relentless Gridlock and Uncertainty 305 Ombudsman), as...


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