Charter change set to become big issue in Thailand’s general election

Democratic reformists in Thailand have hit a brick wall, after two constitutional amendment bills proposed by civic groups were rejected by Parliament in the space of a year.

Politicians and activists who want sweeping reforms to the post-coup Constitution have vowed to fight on for “true democracy” despite overwhelming opposition from coalition party MPs and senators.

Last Wednesday (Nov 17), an amendment bill dubbed the “people’s constitution” by advocates was thrown out of Parliament in the first reading. MPs and senators voted 473-206 against the draft, which was sponsored by the Re-Solution group, the opposition Move Forward Party, Progressive Movement and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw).

One year ago on November 19, iLaw’s “people’s bill” for constitutional change suffered the same fate – rejected in Parliament due to insufficient support from senators and MPs.

While iLaw’s contentious draft sought to erase the legacy of the 2014 military coup and change the charter’s first two chapters regarding the Kingdom and the King, the latest people-proposed draft aimed at “dismantling the so-called ‘Prayut regime’ and replacing it with a fairer system that benefits all stakeholders”, said its key proponent Piyabutr Saengkanokkul.

What’s next

Analysts say a people-proposed amendment bill has almost zero chance of success during the current Parliament sitting – though they expect charter change to be a hot campaign topic at the next general election, expected next year.

However, the issue could become a double-edged sword, warned political pundit Wanwichit Boonprong, from Rangsit University. Pushing for radical change to certain parts of the Constitution risks having an entire amendment draft rejected again, he said.

Move Forward will incorporate highlights of the latest people-proposed charter draft in its policy platform for the next general election, according to party leader Pita Limjaroenrat, who expects backing from reform-minded people.

Meanwhile, the main opposition party Pheu Thai will continue its push for constitutional amendment, said its secretary-general Prasert Chantararuangthong, who proposes a national referendum on whether the entire charter should be rewritten.

The coalition Chart Thai Pattana Party will also campaign for constitutional amendment at the next election, vowed chief strategist Varawut Silpa-archa, who also serves as natural resources and environment minister. Varawut said the party will back a national referendum on whether a constitution drafting assembly should be set up to write a new charter.

Controversial proposals

Among the most controversial proposals in the latest charter-change draft was to abolish the Senate, leaving only the House of Representatives in Parliament.

The draft also sought to remove all current Constitutional Court judges and members of independent organizations appointed after the 2014 coup. It called for new officeholders to be nominated by MPs and the general assembly of Supreme Court judges or Supreme Administrative Court judges, with those obtaining the most votes from MPs getting the jobs.

Moreover, the draft proposed boosting opposition MPs’ powers to scrutinize the government through separate panels set up to monitor the armed forces, courts of justice, and independent agencies.

Also, the draft sought to revoke the post-coup junta’s 20-year national strategy, require that the prime minister be an elected MP, adopt legal mechanisms against a military coup, and endorse voters’ right to propose new laws and scrutinize judges — at least 10,000 and 20,000 signatures needed, respectively.

However, this latest charter-change push joined 19 others in failing to pass. Over the past two years, 21 charter amendment bills have been deliberated in Parliament, but only one managed to sail through – the bill to restore the two-ballot election system and alter the House of Representatives’ composition.

To gain approval, the bill had to win a simple majority in both Houses and also meet special requirements designed as a barrier to charter change, including support from at least one-third of senators. Most of the 20 rejected bills failed to gain required Senate support.

Double-edged sword

Rangsit University’s Wanwichit said that increased power for politicians to scrutinize the armed forces, courts and independent agencies could be a double-edged sword, as this was tantamount to granting politicians the power to interfere in those agencies.

And while it could help boost transparency, such a move could also weaken independent organizations and bring about a crisis of confrontation, he warned.

He gave the example of Thaksin Shinawatra’s government transferring then-Army chief General Surayud Chulanont to the supreme commander in 2002.

“That marked the beginning of Thaksin’s decline. Politicians must first understand the Army’s culture before trying to restructure it. There are real risks in trying to control or reduce its power,” said the military affairs expert.

Regarding the proposal to abolish the Senate and adopt a unicameral Parliament, Wanwichit said a neutral solution would be to make the Upper House an elected body.

“Getting rid of the Senate would destroy the balance of political power,” he added.

“Many senators are capable [in their jobs] and play a major role in helping MPs to screen laws, while MPs mainly focus on and respond to the needs of their electorate.”

An election-winning issue?

However, Wanwichit isn’t sure whether the political parties spearheading charter amendments will be victorious at the next election.

“Instead of gaining popular support, the parties may find this is a handicap [in their election campaigning],” he said.

“Don’t forget that many voters are more interested in bread-and-butter issues. Parties obsessed with using charter amendment to weaken their rivals may not succeed, especially among voters in the provinces.”

The analyst was apparently referring to Move Forward, which is campaigning to “uproot the Prayut regime” and amend the Constitution for “true democracy”.

Fellow opposition party Pheu Thai is more cautious in its moves for charter change and has greater experience in election campaigning, said Wanwichit.

Pheu Thai is likely to balance the charter issue with a more populist platform, according to analysts.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk


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