Corruption and Institutions Repost from January 16

Many of the articles dealing with the most recent round of “protests” aimed at dismantling Thailand’s ever-fragile democratic governance speak of the need for “strong institutions” to provide the “checks and balances” necessary to protect against corruption and other abuses of power by elected officials. This theme is hardly new in Thai politics. The ’97 Constitution was designed with just these “institutions” in mind.

This article from Bloomberg puts it clearly: “Only strong judiciaries, anti-corruption arms and networks of government watchdog agencies can ensure accountability.” And whereas I am sure all good liberal-democrats everywhere will nod their heads in agreement (as I found myself doing as I read it), a moment’s reflection is enough to realize that this sort of suggestion is equivalent to proposing that Thailand adopt “Mom, Apple Pie, and The American Way” as a bulwark against everything bad. Which is just silly.

Thailand is an early-adopter of what is being recognized as a major trend in anti-democratic strategizing around the world: the so-called “judicial coup”. In order for groups or individuals aligned against democratic governments to avoid resorting to the much-maligned military coup, a “strong judiciary” is a good substitute. A wealthy oligarchy with a matched set of judges in its arsenal is going to benefit from a “strong judiciary” far more than the voting public with their “one man, one vote” weapon of choice.

The same thing goes for all of the “institutions” needed to provide the “checks and balances”. The stronger the institution the more powerfully it can be used to either bolster or utterly destroy an embattled democracy like Thailand’s.

Corrupt judges cleared the way for Thaksin Shinawatra to become Prime Minister when he had been caught hiding his assets under his maids and chauffeurs, and corrupt judges have been beavering away ever since to remove him and his associates from Thai politics.

To run through the catalog of similar abuses by the NACC (National Anti-Corruption Commission) and the EC (Election Commission) over the past decade or so would be a waste of time. The point is clear: without honest, law-abiding men and women to staff the strong institutions that provide checks and balances to government power, these institutions serve only to shore up the power of extra-governmental, anti-democratic forces within the country.

What this means of course is that Suthep and his followers calling for “good people” to set the Thai system of government back on democratic track is absolutely correct. The irony of a corrupt politician (charged with murder and being allowed to avoid reporting to the police because he is too busy overthrowing an elected government) nominating himself and his cronies to be part of a committee to choose those “good people” is painful.

Corruption in Thailand begins at the top and flows downward. At some point in the process, that corruption has gathered sufficient power unto itself to threaten the livelihoods and lives of anyone who would challenge it. It is going to require a lot more than “strong institutions” to save democracy as the preferred form of government in a country where just about everyone in the middle class and above is heavily implicated in the very corruption they pretend to abhor.

At the “bottom” of the Thai system of “democracy”, farmers sell their votes to whoever offers them a few hundred baht and then go ahead and vote for whomever they want. At the “top”, judges and professors and journalists and politicians sell themselves for varying amounts of money, prestige and power, thus ensuring that the votes those farmers sold mean nothing anyway.

And what can strong institutions do about that?

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