Charter amendment: Benefits, risks and difficulties

Charter amendment can reopen old wounds. Or it can create new ones. The former scenario will benefit the opposition, whereas the latter can play into Prayut Chan-o-cha’s hands. Either way, Thailand’s fresh constitutional controversy should come sooner rather than later.

There are a few good reasons why the opposition’s “endgame” should come early, and one of them is that Prayut will get stronger if given an ample breathing space. For example, the Pheu Thai alliance has managed to hold onto the partnership with the New Economics Party, but barely just. A lull lasting too long can result in a major change of heart, allowing Prayut to co-opt the party and consolidate his position in the process.

But rushing to amend the Constitution can have drawbacks as well. Chief among them is what Future Forward secretary-general Piyabutr Saengkanokkul has alluded to. He said in a recent published interview that his party was ready to spearhead a push for a constitutional revamp _ even though such a move can be doomed from the beginning _ but he admitted that timing is crucial.

He foresees Thai people asking why the opposition thinks changing the Constitution is more important than helping them put food on the table, tackling drug addiction or increasing public safety. “We have to convince them we can do both _ making the charter more democratic and solving immediate problems at the same time,” he said.

Political watchers also are seeing pros and cons. Here are what they think regarding amending the Constitution:

Why it should be done:

  1. Strategically, it helps keep alive the opposition’s claims that it is functioning under an “unfair” Constitution. No matter how proposed changes do in Parliament, the issue can create big ripples outside it. There will be articles, editorials and forums _ all on the subject. Foreign comments in favor of amendment can also be expected.
  2. It can drive a wedge between the ruling Palang Pracharat Party and the Democrats, the key government partner.
  3. It will rekindle debate on the relevance of the Senate and whether it is getting too much power. This could hit the government’s “legitimacy” hard. Piyabutr has a good point when he said that although the Prayut coalition can boast the House of Representatives “majority” without the Senate support, senators’ involvement in the prime ministerial election process influenced many MPs’ decisions.
  4. The 1997 “Peoples Charter” can serve as an inspiration, a proof that when the public are against a charter, there is nothing Parliament can do about it.

Why it should not be done:

  1. There is next-to-zero chance of winning. Changing the Constitution requires solid support from the Senate, which will unlikely vote to belittle or end its own existence. This means that even if the Democrats side with the opposition, a united Senate along with the rest of the coalition government can easily outvote the pro-change MPs.
  2. A charter amendment campaign can backfire. The opposition faces possible charges from the public that it cares little about ordinary citizens’ problems and is only interested in its own trouble.
  3. The current Constitution went through a national referendum just a few years ago. A campaign to change it will lead to a question of whether that vote should be respected. The opposition can argue that the referendum took place during a military rule, but the bloc needs to provide good evidence that many Thais voted against their wills.
  4. The 1997 phenomenon followed a public consensus that the Constitution preceding the “People’s Charter” was bad. That resulted in Parliament giving way to an unorthodox method of having a new charter drafted by a special entity. The situation is different now, with Thais split along their ideological lines over the present Constitution.

Simply put, good timing can reopen old wounds, but poor timing can backfire. The election campaign, the election itself and the fight to form a government have generated too many political games deemed not beneficial to national well-being.

On the one hand, that makes Prayut a lucky man, as potential charter amendment proposals can be “too far-off” when the general public are concerned. On the other hand, the issue of charter changes will keep him on his toes, because the “too far-off” distance can drastically shorten in a hurry if corruption prevails, crimes rise, competitiveness falls and life of the man on the street generally worsens.


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