The Central Government

The Central Government

In the 1980s, the governmental system remained unitary, with all important decisions emanating from the traditionally powerful bureaucratic elite in Bangkok. Composed of senior members of the civil and military wings of the bureaucracy, this elite dominated the governmental process from the national level down to the district level. In this process, the Ministry of Interior continued to play a key role as the administrative framework of the state, resisting reforms and changes.

The King

The Constitution stipulates that the king is "enthroned in a position of revered worship" and is not to be exposed "to any sort of accusation or action." As ceremonial head of state, the monarch is endowed with a formal power of assent and appointment, is above partisan affairs, and does not involve himself in the decision-making process of the government. In the 1980s, King Bhumibol Adulyadej remained the nation's most respected figure because he was popularly perceived to be the embodiment of religion, culture, and history. He ensured political stability and unity by lending legitimacy to important government actions and, in potentially destabilizing situations, as during the abortive coups in 1981 and 1985, by discreetly signaling his support of the incumbent government.

In discharging his formal duties, the king was assisted by the Privy Council, whose president and not more than fourteen members were royal appointees. These members could not hold other public offices, belong to political parties, or show loyalty to any partisan organization. Also assisting the king were the Office of His Majesty's Principal Private Secretary and the Bureau of the Royal Household, agencies responsible for organizing ceremonial functions and administering the finances and logistics of the royal palace.

The mode of succession was set forth in the Palace Law on Succession. In the absence of a crown prince, or if the crown prince declined succession, a princess could succeed, subject to parliamentary approval. When the throne became vacant, an heir was to be appointed by the Privy Council. Until the heir formally ascended the throne, the president of the Privy Council would act as regent. Prince Vajiralongkorn, the only son of King Bhumibol and Queen Sirikit, was designated as heir on December 28, 1972, at the age of twenty.

National Assembly

In the 1980s, the bicameral parliament, unable to successfully challenge the tradition of bureaucratic dominance over state affairs, was overshadowed by the executive branch. The National Assembly continued to be an instrument of cabinet rule, with its legislative agenda issuing for the most part from the executive branch.

Under the Constitution, the National Assembly was structured to accommodate both the military and civilian bureaucratic elite and the electorate. The influence of the traditionally powerful bureaucracy was channeled through the Senate, whose members were nominated by the prime minister for pro forma appointment by the king. Up to 85 percent of the Senate membership in the late 1980s was drawn from the armed forces and the police. The intent of this arrangement was to encourage the military to play its traditional political role through the upper house rather than through a coup or countercoup.

Senators served a term of six years, and one-third of them were retired every two years. Retirees could be reappointed for an unlimited number of terms. A senator was required to be at least thirty-five years of age, a Thai citizen by birth, and not a member of any political party. Other membership qualifications were broadly phrased, including the requirement that appointees have "knowledge and experience in various branches of learning or affairs which will be useful to the administration of the state."

House of Representatives members represented the populace. They were elected for a four-year term by direct suffrage and secret ballot at the ratio of a member to each 150,000 inhabitants. Each province (changwat), regardless of population, was entitled to at least one seat. A constituency with a population in excess of 75,000 also qualified for a seat. A candidate had to be at least twenty-five years of age, a Thai citizen by birth, and a member of a political party. As a rule, an election had to be held within sixty days from the expiration of the four-year term of the lower house. When the House was dissolved by royal decree (on the recommendation of the prime minister), a new election was required within ninety days.

The two chambers conducted their business separately under their respective presidents (speakers) and vice presidents, who were chosen from among the membership. Under the Constitution, the president of the Senate was automatically the speaker of the National Assembly and in that capacity was empowered to play a strategic role in the selection of the prime minister.

In the 1980s, lower house members demanded that their president, rather than the president of the upper house, have a decisive role in the process of selecting the prime minister. This policy was necessary, they said, because the House of Representatives, not the military-dominated Senate, collectively represented the will of the electorate. A bill to amend the Constitution to make the lower house speaker the president of the National Assembly was introduced in 1986 but failed to pass.

In 1987 the customary role of the Senate as a major vehicle for the power of the bureaucracy and a counterweight to the elective lower house remained little changed, even though its stature seemed to have diminished somewhat after April 1983. At that time, certain senatorial powers granted under temporary clauses of the Constitution expired despite the army's efforts to have these clauses extended. Under these clauses, the Senate had had the power to deliberate jointly with the lower chamber on annual appropriation bills, on "an important bill relating to the security of the Kingdom, the Throne, or the national economy," and the power to vote on no-confidence motions. The army and its political allies in parliament failed to have the clauses extended because of factious squabbles. If they had succeeded, the military's political power would have been enhanced greatly.

The lapse of the transitory provisions, however, did not affect the Senate's power to address such matters as the appointment of a regent, the royal succession, reconsideration of a bill vetoed by the prime minister, constitutional interpretation, a declaration of war, the ratification of treaties, the appointment of members of the Constitutional Tribunal, and constitutional amendments. In joint sessions senators also could render their opinion on any aspect of affairs of state to the prime minister when requested to do so by the latter. Such opinion was advisory and nonbinding.

Bills could be introduced only by the Council of Ministers or the members of the House of Representatives. Major legislation originated mostly in the cabinet, but only the lower house, with the prior endorsement of the prime minister, could initiate an appropriations bill. An ordinary bill had to be sponsored by a political party and endorsed by at least twenty party members. Bills were passed by a majority, the quorum being not less than one-half of the total members of either house in which the bills originated.

A bill passed by the House was sent to the Senate. The Senate was required to act on an ordinary bill within ninety days and on an appropriations bill within sixty days. If the Senate failed to act in either case, the bill was considered to have been consented to by the Senate, unless the lower chamber had extended the time. Disagreements between the two houses were resolved by a joint committee. When the dispute pertained to an appropriations bill and the lower house voted to reaffirm the bill it had originally passed, the prime minister was required to present the bill to the king for his assent and promulgation. At that point, the prime minister could exercise his important legislative role. He might advise the king to approve or veto the bill; in the latter event, the National Assembly needed two-thirds of its total membership to override the royal objections (actually the prime minister's objections).

Members of the assembly, who had parliamentary immunity, could question formally a cabinet minister or the prime minister on any appropriate issue except one in which executive privilege was involved. A motion of no-confidence against either an individual minister or the cabinet en masse could be initiated only by members of the lower house. Such a motion required an affirmative vote of at least one-half of the lower house membership. Senators could not take part in no-confidence debates.

Council of Ministers

The cabinet, the center of Thai political power, consisted of forty-four members, including the prime minister, deputy prime ministers, ministers, and deputy ministers. Individually and collectively the members were accountable to the House of Representatives and had to retain its confidence. The cabinet was required to resign en masse if a no-confidence motion against it was passed by the House. The four-party coalition cabinet formed in August 1986 had no civil servants or active-duty military officers. Under the Constitution, cabinet members were not allowed to hold political posts as part of an effort to strengthen the political party system.

Under the customary rules of parliamentary government, Thailand could have a prime minister whose party or electoral alliance had earned the mandate of this office outright by winning a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. Whether or not anyone would command a majority in the next election was uncertain, given the highly fragmented political party system. In any case, a public opinion survey conducted in March 1987 by the Social Research Institute of Chulalongkorn University showed that 91 percent of those interviewed in Bangkok favored an elected prime minister. For a requirement that the prime minister be elected, however, the Constitution would have to be amended. In 1987 the Royal Command appointing the prime minister had to be countersigned by the president of the National Assembly, the leader of the military-dominated Senate, who had the power to block the installation of anyone unacceptable to the military establishment. Until the basic law is revised, the selection of the prime minister will continue to be determined by behind-the-scenes power brokers, including the military (especially the army), the monarchy, and leaders of various political parties representing business groups.

The prime minister held the real powers of appointment and removal, which he exercised in the name of the king. He countersigned royal decrees and wielded a wide range of executive powers, including the power to declare a national emergency to ensure "national or public safety or national economic security or to avert public calamity." The legality of an emergency decree had to be validated by the next session of the National Assembly. The prime minister could also proclaim or lift martial law, declare war with the advice and consent of parliament, and conclude peace treaties, armistices, and other treaties--all in the king's name.

As of mid-1987, the executive branch had thirteen ministerial portfolios: agriculture and cooperatives; commerce; communications; defense; education; finance; foreign affairs; industry; interior; justice; public health; science, technology, and energy; and university affairs. The heads of these ministries (except for justice; science, technology, and energy; and university affairs) were aided by one or more cabinet-rank deputy ministers. Each ministry was divided into departments, divisions, and sections. Traditionally, the ministries of defense, interior, and finance were regarded as the most desirable by aspiring politicians and generals. In the 1980s, the ministries of agriculture and cooperatives, industry, and communications grew in stature as the economic value of resources steadily increased.

In 1987 the Office of the Prime Minister continued to be the nerve center of the government. With the assistance of several cabinet-rank ministers attached to the office and of the Secretariat of the Prime Minister, this office monitored, coordinated, and supervised the activities of all government agencies and state enterprises. The secretariat was headed by a cabinet-rank secretary general, who supervised the work of sixteen agencies attached to the prime minister's office. Among these agencies were the Bureau of the Budget, the National Security Council, the Department of Central Intelligence, the Civil Service Commission, and the National Economic and Social Development Board. In August 1986, the secretary general was also placed in charge of a new unit called the National Operations Center established in the Office of the Prime Minister to provide essential data for efficient decision making. Specifically, the task of the National Operations Center was to handle crisis management, cope with threats to internal and external security, and keep the prime minister informed of public sentiment throughout the country.

Outside the regular administrative structure, but subject to its control and supervision, approximately sixty-eight state enterprises were engaged as of 1987 in commercial and economic activities of major importance. In these enterprises, the government was either the sole owner or the dominant partner. Managed by senior civil servants, retired military officers, or politicians, the state enterprises permitted a major government role in virtually every facet of the economic life of the country. In fiscal year ( FY) 1986, their total budget was 9 percent more than the total budget of the government and accounted for 65 percent of external public debt. The inefficiency of these enterprises continued to affect the government's fiscal stability. Privatization of the enterprises was listed as one of the ten major programs of the country's Sixth Economic Development Plan, for 1987-91.

Judiciary

The legal system remained an amalgam of the traditional and the modern. In several southern provinces, for example, Islamic law and custom were applicable to matrimonial and inheritance matters among the Muslims. A large part of the modern legal system was made up of criminal, civil, and commercial codes adopted from the British and other European legal systems with some modifications borrowed from India, Japan, China, and the United States. Also, an extensive body of administrative law consisted of royal decrees, executive orders, and ministerial regulations.

The judiciary provided for three levels of courts: the courts of first instance, the Court of Appeal, and the Supreme Court. The courts came under two separate jurisdictions. The Ministry of Justice appointed and supervised the administrative personnel of the courts and instituted reform in judicial procedures; the Judicial Service Commission, which was responsible for the independence of the courts, appointed, promoted, and removed judges. As a rule, judges retired at age sixty, but their service could be extended to age sixty-five.

The country was divided into nine judicial regions, which were coextensive with the nine administrative regions (phag), in contrast to the four geographic regions (North, Northeast, Center, and South). At the base of the judiciary system were the courts of first instance, most of which were formally known as provincial courts with unlimited civil and criminal jurisdiction. Petty civil and criminal offenses were handled by magistrates' courts, which were designed to relieve the increasing burden on provincial courts. Offenses committed by Thai citizens on the high seas and outside the country were tried before the Criminal Court in Bangkok. Labor disputes were adjudicated by the Central Labor Court established in Bangkok in 1980. Offenses by persons under eighteen years of age were referred to the Central Juvenile Court and its counterparts in several regional centers.

The Court of Appeal in Bangkok heard cases from all lower courts (except the Central Labor Court) relating to civil, juvenile, criminal, and bankruptcy matters. At least two judges were required to sit at each hearing. Cases of exceptional importance had to be heard by plenary sessions of the court. The appellate court could reverse, revise, or remand lower court decisions on questions of both law and fact.

The Supreme Court, which was the highest court of appeal, also had original jurisdiction over election disputes. Although decisions of the court were final, in criminal cases the king could grant clemency. A dispute over court jurisdiction was settled by the Constitutional Tribunal.


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