Bell rings for round 2 of Constitution fight, with Thailand’s supreme law at stake
The draft bill for a national referendum on charter change is back in the spotlight, with Parliament due next week to resume deliberations that were suspended in April.
The government-sponsored bill would open the door to the rewriting of a Constitution that has been criticized as undemocratic and designed to extend the military’s grip on power.
The bill authorizes Parliament or public petitions with at least 50,000 signatures to ask the Cabinet to hold a public referendum on any important issue.
MPs and senators will convene on June 22-24 for the second and third reading of the referendum bill and deliberation of charter amendment drafts.
However, concerns have been raised that ruling Palang Pracharath Party MPs will join the junta-appointed Senate in blocking the referendum bill, slamming the door on a new Constitution.
Opposition parties and pro-democracy groups are pressing for Parliament to pass the referendum bill first, since a public vote of assent is required before the process of rewriting a new draft starts.
Parliament President Chuan Leekpai this week announced that pending bills on the referendum and narcotics must be deliberated first before lawmakers proceed to charter amendment drafts.
Palang Pracharath MPs in April submitted a draft amendment to rewrite the Constitution section by section, covering five points and 13 articles. This week, three other government coalition parties submitted eight more charter amendment proposals.
Opposition leader Pheu Thai also proposed five charter-change drafts, including one seeking to amend Article 256 to pave the way for a charter drafting assembly (CDA) to write a new Constitution without touching contentious issues – namely the monarchy and Thai sovereignty.
The opposition Move Forward party is expected to submit its own draft for sweeping changes plus a CDA elected by the people, but said it will only do so once Parliament passes the referendum bill.
“We fear our draft will face legal hurdles again if the referendum bill has yet to be approved by Parliament,” said its leader Pita Limjaroenrat.
The opposition Move Forward Party is pushing for an amendment to the Criminal Code that would punish judicial personnel for “distorting the law”.
Ruling party plotting KO
Observers believe Palang Pracharath MPs may seek to table their charter amendment bill for consideration before the referendum bill, so as to delay or block the opposition’s push for sweeping changes to the charter.
The ruling party’s draft bill needs no referendum as it details section-by-section amendments rather than a total rewrite.
Pro-democracy campaigners say the ruling’s party amendment draft constitutes a second push to retain power while ignoring public pressure for a more democratic charter. As such, they have pressed Parliament to pass the referendum bill first so that charter change can be put to a public vote.
2 referendums needed
The Constitutional Court in March ruled that rewriting the charter requires two national referendums – one to find out if the public actually wants a new Constitution and another to vote on the final draft. The court’s ruling stemmed from a petition filed by senators and Palang Pracharath MPs.
But the ruling did not stipulate when or at which stage the first referendum must be held.
The unclear ruling led to concern over Pheu Thai’s amendment bill to revise Article 256. Observers say it could be questioned whether the party asked people via a referendum if they want a new charter.
It may face another request for legal review by Palang Pracharath MPs or senators, to make clear when exactly the referendum must be held – before an amendment draft is submitted, during Parliament’s deliberations or after the bill has passed its third reading and before a CDA is set up.
What the government says
However, Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s legal expert, said the opposition’s charter amendment bill to revise Article 256 does not appear to violate the court’s ruling.
He expects the separate processes of amending Article 256 and deliberating the referendum bill to be completed around the same time.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk
Three government coalition parties, Democrat, Bhumjaithai and Chart Thai Pattana, have submitted eight draft constitutional amendments to Thailand’s House Speaker Chuan Leekpai, only hours after the Opposition submitted five of their own.