Superintendence going overboard?

Some years ago I coauthored some work on the concept of ‘superintendence’ agencies, understood as non-elected institutions that provide “horizontal exchange.” The agencies provide checks on the executive and legislature that go well beyond the more typical constitutionality determinations by courts (rejecting laws or decrees, for example). Instead, superintendence agencies substitute for gaps in the “vertical” relationship between voters (the ultimate principal in a democracy) and their elected agents.

The basic idea behind the design of superintendence institutions seems to be an attempt to answer the question: but what happens when the voters themselves choose “bad” agents–those who violate election laws and other constitutional and legal provisions that are meant to ensure “good government.”

There has been quite a proliferation in recent decades of such agencies, including evermore powerful electoral commissions (whose authority extends well beyond mere administration of elections), independent prosecutors, human rights ombudsmen, counter-corruption commissions, and the like. Several superintendence institutions were created in recent constitutional overhauls in Colombia (where they are operative) and Venezuela (where they mostly are not), among other countries. However, perhaps nowhere has the concept of superintendence gone so far as in Thailand’s constitutional innovations of 1997.

This is all a long set-up for a question for the readers: Can anyone identify another case where an unelected institution–other than armed forces, of course–has dismissed a sitting chief executive? This just happened in Thailand:

The Constitution Court moved with unusual speed on Tuesday to dismiss Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat and outlaw the ruling People Power party. […]

PPP leaders vowed to form another government under the Puea Thai party label. But it will be without Mr Somchai, who was banned from politics for five years. […]

Also banned by the court was the venerable Chart Thai party and the Matchimatipataya, both key members of the coalition government. […]

It is expected that the three banned parties will reunite under the Puea Thai (For Thais) party, and form a government from surviving members of parliament. […]

The court decision banned the parties and all their executives because of cheating in the Dec 23, 2007, election. But the decision has no immediate effect on other MPs or their ability to form a government.

I covered the election at the time: click the country name in the “Planted in” line to see them.

6 thoughts on “Superintendence going overboard?

  1. You asked, “Can anyone identify another case where an unelected institution–other than armed forces, of course–has dismissed a sitting chief executive?” The answer is, Yes-quite easily. A textbook instance occurred in the Australasian region on 11 November 1975-which is, as many will be aware, Remembrance Day and thus helps ensure we don’t forget that it was when the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr, dismissed the legally elected incumbent Prime Minister of Australia, Gough Whitlam. Having dismissed Whitlam, Kerr then installed Malcolm Fraser, the Leader of the Opposition in Australia’s federal House of Representatives, as Prime Minister, and-as a result-Whitlam immediately dubbed Fraser “Kerr’s cur”! Readers of “Fruits and Votes” might like to see a wonderful parody of the event, a mock opera entitled “Il Dismissale”, that was broadcast on the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s satirical programme, “The Gillies Report”. It’s available on youtube.

  2. Strictly the Constitutional Court has found Somchai guilty of electoral fraud. It is not uncommon to disqualify electors from office where they are convicted of election fraud. I believe there are some quite large jurisdictions in North America where you can be disqualified from voting and office for life, not 5 years, even for non-electoral offences.

    The Thai situation has drifted into an impasse where neither major coalition is particularly democratic or particularly concerned with the good of the nation. There is no obvious solution , especially since the long history of coup-making by the armed forces and the king, and the record of decisions like the court decision against Somchai, gives the Thaksin supporters little motive to remain within the rules.

    As for other examples, they can be more exotic. The Indonesian electoral commission disqualified former president Wahid from running on medical grounds in 2004. Wahid’s presidency, the first reformasi administration, was wrecked by his problems with disability. They can also be more prosaic. In 1983 and 1992 premiers of New South Wales stood down from office while a royal commission for one and an anti-corruption commission for the other, investigated misconduct allegations. One premier returned to office after being cleared. The other resigned after an adverse finding.

    The Thai situation, I’d submit, is not really a case of watchdogs run amok so much as an entire political class run amok.

  3. I suppose I would not be inclined to consider a head of state (even an unelected one) as a superintendence institution, but I see Nigel’s point.

    “A political class run amok”–seems to be a rather consistent theme here in recent days!

  4. Might it depend whether the agency disqualifies the HoG directly from holding the position of Prime Minister – or indirectly, by holding that the P/PM does not hold some necessary qualifying precondition – eg, because s/he narrowly missed out on being elected the Member for Barrowdaledown by a few hundred disputed votes?

  5. Abol-hassan Banisadr, the first elected president of Iran, was sacked by the country’s unelected Supreme Leader. The country’s parliament seems also to have impeached him, so this might not work as an example.

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