Charter amendment bill set aside as Thai lawmakers debate if it even exists
Wednesday’s parliamentary session was marked by long and heated arguments over whether the charter-amendment bill should go to a final reading or be dropped altogether.
Last week, the Constitutional Court ruled that Parliament had the authority to write a new Constitution but said a national referendum must be held first to see if the public actually wants a new charter. It also ruled that a second public referendum must be held on the completed charter draft.
Lawmakers were scheduled to vote on the third and final reading of the draft bill on Wednesday, but Parliament President Chuan Leekpai permitted a debate on whether the amendment bill should move forward at all.
As of press time, more than 30 lawmakers had spent seven hours arguing what the next best step should be. Lawmakers have a variety of different interpretations of the court ruling, and four motions had been proposed.
Voting out of question
Senator Somchai Sawangkarn proposed a motion that lawmakers could not vote in the third reading because the bill was unconstitutional as per the court’s ruling.
Somchai said the court ruled that a national referendum must be held before lawmakers can proceed with charter change. According to his interpretation, a charter amendment bill that has passed a second reading translates to writing a new charter, and should be nullified because it was not put through a public referendum as required by the court.
Somchai’s motion was supported by fellow senators and matched the view of Palang Pracharath MP Paiboon Nititawan, who led the petition seeking a court review on the matter. Paiboon claims lawmakers cannot vote in the final reading or even freeze the bill, because it is unconstitutional.
Instead, he said, a fresh charter-writing process should begin with parliamentarians submitting a new motion and asking the Cabinet to hold a national referendum.
If the majority of voters say they want a new charter, Parliament is authorised to proceed with charter change by appointing an ad hoc committee – but not a Constitutional Drafting Assembly (CDA).
The motion was opposed by opposition parties Pheu Thai and Kao Klai, as well as some coalition Democrat MPs. They said it contravened Parliament regulations and the current Constitution, adding there were no rules allowing Parliament to decide whether a draft bill should be dropped.
Stop and seek clarity
Democrat Party MP Jurin Laksanavisit proposed that the Parliament delay the third-reading vote and seek a court review on differing interpretations to find a way out for the country.
Jurin said certain points in the court ruling were still unclear. For instance, the ruling did not clarify the status of the amendment bill – whether it is an amendment of the 2017 Constitution or a bill to write a new charter. Nor did it stipulate when exactly the first referendum should be held – before the writing process begins or after the amendment bill passes the third reading.
“The court has yet to rule on the status of the amendment draft bill. We don’t know if the bill is still alive or already dead,” Jurin said.
His motion was supported by his party and coalition partners Bhumjaithai and Chartthaipattana but drew fierce opposition from senators who claimed the court’s ruling was clear.
Kao Klai MPs said the motion would only prolong the charter change process.
‘Bill still very much alive’
Opposition Pheu Thai and Kao Klai MPs proposed that lawmakers go ahead with the vote on the third reading, insisting the ongoing parliamentary process to amend the 2017 Constitution was constitutional.
Kao Klai MP Rangsiman Rome said the court did not rule to nullify the amendment bill, so he believes the bill is not dead.
He added that the ongoing process only involved changing one Article to pave the way for setting up a CDA, not the writing of a new charter.
Rangsiman pointed out that a new charter will only surface once the CDA finishes writing one, then the public can decide whether to approve or block it.
He said a referendum can be held to ask if the public wants a new charter and if the one drafted by the CDA is acceptable.
“Who are these people who don’t want the current charter to be amended and who are blocking the country from finding a way out [of the political stalemate] by claiming that the amendment bill should be dropped or its process nullified?” the Kao Klai MP asked.
“I plead with all of you to proceed with the vote and show the public who truly wants to block charter change. People are hoping and waiting for a democratic charter to unlock the political crisis. Delaying even for a single day will be bad,” he said.
Pheu Thai MP Chonlanan Srikaew said the best solution would be for Parliament to approve the bill in the third reading, so the public have a final say on whether they want a new charter.
“Don’t block the public’s power, otherwise it will lead to a constitutional crisis and bloodshed as we saw during the Black May of 1992,” Chonlanan warned.
Senators strongly opposed Rangsiman’s motion and threatened to seek a further ruling on the legality of Parliament voting on the third reading.
Why not a referendum now?
Palang Pracharath MP Veerakorn Kamprakob proposed that Parliament suspend the third reading so Chuan can ask the Election Commission to hold a national referendum on whether the public want a new charter in the first place.
“I agree we should not shoot down the [amendment] bill. If we vote it down, then the public will feel deceived [by lawmakers],” he said.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk