Govt feels heat as pressure mounts for charter amendments
Calls for amendments to pave the way for a new charter are growing after anti-establishment protesters returned to the streets last month.
This time around, pressure to change the current Constitution – written after the 2014 military coup and in force since April 2017 – appears stronger than before, with protesting students joined by netizens, academics, parliamentarians, and even coalition politicians.
Though the government appears to be yielding some ground in response to the calls, many critics suspect the powers-that-be are simply buying time.
The House committee tasked with studying constitutional amendments has resolved that the pivotal Article 256 should be changed first to pave the way for an eventual drafting of a new charter.
“We may have to suggest the setting up of a constitution drafting assembly, or something like that. It’s up to the government to consider it,” said committee chairman Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, who is also the PM’s adviser.
The panel has completed 90 per cent of its task and should be ready to hand its recommendations to the House by September 19, he said last Friday, speaking about the progress for the first time since it was formed late last year.
Pirapan said the panel’s duty is to suggest “points that should be improved” in the Constitution.
“It is the government’s duty to decide if there should be amendments,” he added.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made it clear for the first time on Tuesday that his government is supportive of the move by the House of Representatives to amend the Constitution. But he quickly added that his administration would also draft its own set of amendments for submission to Parliament.
However, the PM dismissed the suggestion that the government’s support was a result of mounting pressure following the widespread student protests.
Meanwhile, in the face of mounting pressure, coalition MPs have shifted their stance and are now backing moves to amend the charter. The coalition Democrat Party resolved on Monday to push for charter amendments, with a focus on Article 256, and back the establishment of a constitution drafting assembly.
Democrat MP Theptai Senapong proposed that the government “host” the amendment and thus send a signal to all 250 senators about the support required to change Article 256.
‘Undemocratic and unfair’
Critics say that certain provisions in the charter are “undemocratic” and were designed to allow the post-coup junta National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) to retain its power after the March 2019 general elections.
These include a provision that empowered the 250 junta-appointed senators to vote along with the 500-member House of Representatives to select a prime minister.
Thanks to this clause, the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party was able to form a coalition government even though it came in second in the elections. The party’s sole prime ministerial candidate, General Prayut, was made premier again by Parliament – with unanimous backing from the entire Senate.
Unless this controversial clause is amended, any PM candidate nominated by Palang Pracharath will almost certainly get full support from the Senate.
Critics say such “unfair” provisions have lit the fuse on a timebomb of dangerous social divisions and mounting frustration.
Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, chairman of the Campaign for Popular Democracy, warned that the current charter was a timebomb because it promotes oligarchy, while “systematically barring the majority from political participation”.
“This is unfair politics,” he said, noting that Prayut – who along with his close cohorts benefits from this charter – has never publicly spoken about amending it.
Difficult by design
Charter drafters obviously aimed to make changing the charter a difficult task. Despite being approved by a national referendum, the Constitution sets multiple tough conditions for any moves to amend it.
For instance, an amendment motion can only be made in the form of a complete draft by either the Cabinet, one-fifth of MPs, a fifth of parliamentarians or at least 50,000 eligible voters. Then this proposed bill is subject to three House readings and requires a majority plus an okay from at least one-third of senators to be passed.
But Parliament is only the first hurdle; the new draft charter must then be approved in a national referendum before it can be enacted.
The entire amendment process – including the referendum – could take about a year and a half, said Bhokin Bhalakula, a senior Pheu Thai politician and adviser to Pirapan’s panel.
“Some people say that’s too long, but we have to do this carefully and there are no shortcuts. We have to be patient for about a year and a half,” he said.
However, Pheu Thai’s chief strategist Khunying Sudarat Keyuraphan disagrees, saying on Monday that charter change should take no more than a year.
Political scientist Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee from Chulalongkorn University said only key constitutional clauses should be amended at this time, including the electoral system and provisions involving the PM candidates’ qualifications and how the PM is selected.
She suggested that work on amending the Constitution begin when a new House of Representatives and a new government takes office after the next general election.
Meanwhile, some senators appear sympathetic to charter change, seeing it as a means to address widespread frustrations. Senator Wanchai Sornsiri said the government should consider the protesters’ demand for constitutional amendments “before it’s too late”. Otherwise, they could end up like a previous government that was far too confident and then collapsed, he warned.
However, few senators are expected to support moves that will result in their powers being curtailed.
Most politicians – in the opposition and coalition alike – naturally want the charter amended to reduce the political influence enjoyed by certain key figures from the post-coup junta, who are still in government. These strongmen now control the ruling political party, the coalition government and Parliament.
In the end, charter change depends on the sincere support for amendments by the powers-that-be and their allies in the Senate. Many observers doubt that sincerity and are skeptical that the Constitution will be changed.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk