Resource Autthapon Muangming. (2018). Local Government in Thailand and Decentralization after the 2014 Military Coup. Social Science Asia, 4(2), 35-50.
Progress of Thai local government and decentralization from the past to present and into the future
When looking from the past to the present, it can be pointed out that the long and continuous evolution of decentralization has developed slowly, sometimes lagging behind or sometimes making more rapid progress. Past development took the social situation, economy and political aspects into consideration. The problems and obstacles were sometimes within the local government organizations and sometimes problems come from external factors in terms of the national political situation or a lack of seriousness by central government to transfer authority to local organizations or the central government’s attempts to draw back power to itself. Since the 1997 Constitution, one can see that there has been a lot of progress because the political situation in Thailand immediately afterwards was very democratic and there were no severe conflicts which created a climate of cooperation in the reform of many sectors. The concept of decentralization to localities that has been clearly prescribed in the 2017 Constitution is different from the previous versions of the constitution with regard to administration, management, budget, personnel, and public participation as well as independence under the governance of other government sectors. In this case, it can be clearly seen that the change is that the administrators and local councilors must come from a direct election of people, but in practice these positions are appointed by the central government or are officials belonging to other agencies. Thus, local elections are the key to creating the relationship between administrators and local councilors who are elected by the people in order to make the people feel that they are involved and have a stake in local government. As to the responsibilities of the local government organizations, it appears that they are responsible for only cleanliness and building utilities and facilities. However, the Determining Plans and Process of Decentralization to Local Government Organization Act B.E. 2542 (1999) has defined that the local government organizations are responsible for preparing 6 public services which are; infrastructure, promotion of quality of life, organizing the community, promotion of society and peace, planning on investment, commerce and tourism, managing and conserving the natural resource and environment, and art, culture, tradition and local knowledge There is also the effort to promote fiscal decentralization to make local authorities able to manage their budgets and have their own income for use in local development. This legislation is different from the previous practice which specified that local organizations’ budgets were allocated from the central government. The new legislation allows local organizations to resource, budget and collect taxes and fees in their localities. However, there are not many areas for which the local organizations are allowed to collect taxes, so they must still rely mainly on government revenues and subsidies, even though such allocations are not in accordance with the legislation. Although the 2017 Constitution allows the independence of other government sectors, there have been problems of distinguishing between independence and use of government intervention, especially the independence of budget use for public services some of which have the attention of the central government. Thus, local governments do not dare to initiate policies or change policies because they fear breaking the rules or being investigated by the OAG. Public participation has been very progressive so far as people having the opportunity to participate when electing representatives for local administrations. This showed some progress in participating in the processes of thinking, planning, operating, monitoring, and following up. Under the 1997 Constitution, the people could collect the names and propose the removal of local administrators and councilors. Moreover, the 2007 Constitution prescribed an increase in the authority of people in a referendum, so that public participation not only made civil society stronger and provided a basic learning process of the democratic system, but also helped promote transparency in local government organizations When considering the current situation after the coup d’état in 2014, it was found that the direction of local government and decentralization has tended to be characterized by moving more authorities towards the center. The current political government status in Thailand lacks democracy, so most of the power is not directly attached to the people, especially public participation in elections for their local authorities. At present, there is a nationwide suspension of local elections. In the case of fraud or misconduct, suspects are suspended right away; their misconduct case is usually not finalized under the legal process for checking or monitoring the members of councils which were under public participation for investigation or removal. If it is found that a representative has conducted any illegal activities, the central government can now interfere in those procedures. It is said that this is to instigate local politicians’ and officials’ awareness of their honesty, but this action affects the independence of local government organizations. Moreover, there are serious rules or regulations that are not in compliance with the principles or current situation; hence, local governments do not dare to make or initiate plans because they are afraid of their conduct being illegal. However, when considering the issue of authority exercised by the central government that affects local government organizations, it would be fair to explain that this action may only be temporary with no permanent impact on the structure of local government or its independence in certain fields. The central government has not completely dropped the issue of local government and decentralization, so it is necessary to consider the contents of the 2017 Constitution, and especially local administration under the NRSA The 2017 Constitution has no section that clearly determines to support decentralization and the independence of local authorities. Moreover, the issue of the recruitment of administrators of local government organizations, both regular local administrators and special local administrators, is different from previous constitutions. Section 252 only states that the local administrators must come from the election or approval of the local council. This means that the administrators do no need to come from election by the people directly; on the other hand, as they may come from election indirectly it may mean a return to the format of a council-appointed mayor to make the council stronger, or it may be possible to have a format of a city manager. This style of appointment will open the channel to let administrators come from appointment by the central government. Consideration of the plan for local government reform of the NRSA shows that the reform of the structure and authority of the general local administrative organizations, especially the effort to push for local government organizations to have more power for the collection of taxes and other fees, is a good direction for decentralization and support for the organizations to have their own incomes rather than waiting for government subsidies. In addition, there is the new specification of a general local administrative organization that can come from only a PAO and a municipality. In this case, it is done by raising all TAOs to be district municipalities and, if some do not meet the conditions, they may be merged with nearby municipalities. Although this issue is not new in international practice, it has caused much debate about its implementation in Thailand. It can be seen that this merger approach can help strengthen local authorities and help them take care of themselves and provide services for the local population while creating enormous value in resource management for the government sector by reducing the budget for hiring a lot of local staff. It is evident that many local government organizations in Thailand are too small and that their budgets are not enough for their management and performance of their responsibilities. Although this policy may have a good result economically, it will distance people from local government, and the interaction between local politicians and the public may not be as close; also, the public services may be stretched because of the larger area. However, although the issue of local mergers will be specified in the reform plan to be used in the future, this is not the answer for decentralization; creating independence for localities free from interference by the centralized power should be the key point of this reform.
Local government is considered to be one of the mechanisms that will promote democracy with people going through a learning process by participating in local management. Participation in self-governance, especially political participation with the right for people to elect their representatives as local administrators is a process that leads to the relationship between local administrators and the people. Local people can monitor their local administrative committees and be active citizens by forming into the groups for the benefit of the localities. Furthermore, having local governments can lighten the many existing burdens of central government. Local governments in many countries give great value because they can act quickly and efficiently based on the local people’s needs. The concept of decentralization is a universal practice. But in Thailand, its limitation seems to rest on the issue of an imbalance in the transfer of work from the central government and the limitation of the allocation of budget and resources which may lead to problems in local organization management. Under the reform plan of the NRSA, the situation shows some progress in solving the problems. But there are some concerns with the contents of the 2017 Constitution which is too broad and may lead to a problem of interpretations. When reform for local administration is proposed, some laws will need to be revised concerning certain issues such as financial, fiscal and budget management. The laws related to the collection of taxes and fees also have to be considered. All these matters are seen to be a good sign for local organization development. There are other issues which should continue to be taken into consideration. They are the specifications for the recruitment of local administrators to come from other methods, and the issue of the merger of local government organizations which is also very important. The government should not focus only on the economic value but should also concentrate on the key of decentralization to localities with independence and no intervention from the central government or regional bodies. There should be public participation in monitoring the operation of localities rather than reliance on the rigidity of rules and regulations. In order to build a sustainable democratic foundation, the aforementioned issue should receive full support. These are the challenges of decentralization for all localities in the future so that people can have the power to determine the direction of their localities under the concept of self-governance.