Opposition rift threatens to hamper charter change moves
Thailand’s so-called pro-democracy bloc is still far from breaking down, but the rift between opposition allies Pheu Thai and Kao Klai could very well undermine their common goal of changing the military-backed Constitution.
The two parties recently failed to agree over how the charter should be amended.
The main opposition Pheu Thai and six other parties in the bloc last month filed a motion for amendments to the Constitution’s Article 256 that would pave the way for the setting up of a charter drafting assembly. But the motion was rejected by the second largest opposition party, Kao Klai, which withdrew its signature at the last minute.
Instead, Kao Klai came up with its own version of the amendments. Though they agreed with setting up a drafting assembly, the party also proposed revocation of Articles 269-272 to “switch off” the power of 250 junta-appointed senators to, among other things, join MPs in voting for a prime minister.
The articles in question enabled the pro-junta Palang Pracharath Party to form a coalition government despite coming second in the 2019 election, and its sole prime ministerial candidate, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, became premier again with unanimous backing from the entire Senate.
However, with only 54 MPs, Kao Klai is well short of the 98 (one-fifth of the lower House) needed to submit the amendment bill, so they turned to Pheu Thai for support.
However, Pheu Thai voted almost unanimously not to support the Kao Klai motion, believing its own proposal for an elected constitutional drafting assembly had a better chance of success. Pheu Thai pointed out that amending the current constitution would require backing from one-third or 84 of the 250 senators, and it was unlikely that the senators would vote to terminate themselves.
Moreover, both parties also disagreed on Chapters 1 and 2 of the charter involving the role of the monarchy. Pheu Thai said it wouldn’t touch the two chapters, while Kao Klai wanted to keep options open for the charter drafting assembly to listen to views from all groups on sensitive issues.
The move to amend the charter comes amid mounting pressure on the Prayut-led government from youth-led protests that have spread across the country since mid-July, with protesters calling for the government to stop harassing critics, to dissolve Parliament and to amend the 2017 Constitution.
Critics say certain provisions in the charter are “undemocratic” and designed to enable Prayut, a former army chief who first became premier after spearheading a coup in 2014, to retain power.
However, critics are worried that cracks in the alliance between the two main opposition parties will prevent charter change. The supreme law sets multiple tough conditions for any moves to amend it, and requires consensus from all stakeholders.
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 all 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.
Compromise over confrontation
Pheu Thai appears to be using a strategy of compromise instead of directly confronting the government. It may have learnt from tussles with the military that saw its previous incarnations, Thai Rak Thai and People’s Power Party, dissolved and two former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawatra ousted by coups.
Watana Muangsook, a key Pheu Thai member, said last week that his party rejected the current Constitution, which he criticised as being designed to steal power from the people and prolong the power of the military junta.
“But we will not be able to achieve the goal [charter change] without the support of the majority in Parliament – at least 375 MPs plus 84 senators. Therefore, we have to listen to the voices of the majority. If we propose conditions that are not acceptable to the majority, charter amendments will not be possible,” Watana said.
“Amending the Constitution is not a matter of fighting or not fighting. It is about the expectation of success in restoring the power of the people. So, please stop accusing other parties of seeking political gain. That is disgusting,” he said, in a barb apparently aimed at Kao Klai and anti-monarchy groups.
In contrast to Pheu Thai, left-leaning Kao Klai is a young and impetuous party that wants to close the game early. It sees growing pressure from the anti-government movement as the perfect opportunity to finish the job.
Observers point out that the party may also fear that the students’ movement will gradually weaken as authorities take a cautious approach to the protesters and steer away from violent suppression.
The process of amending the charter could take 18 or 24 months or even longer, and Kao Klai has reportedly calculated that Prayut might use that time to dissolve Parliament, but let the Senate retain its power so he can return as PM again with the support of the upper House.
“The provision [empowering the Senate to select a PM] is still in place and gives [senators power] to vote for a PM if a ‘political incident’ takes place. So, we need an urgent debate on Article 272,” said Kao Klai leader Pita Limjaroenrat on Monday.
Observers say Pheu Thai’s bill is likely to be passed in Parliament, since ruling coalition parties have proposed a similar amendment bill which also does not touch the chapter on the monarchy.
Pheu Thai’s strategic move to establish a charter drafting council would open the door for a wider change, including stripping the senate’s power to vote for a PM, observers believe. But Kao Klai chose to follow the anti-government movement’s demand to “switch off” the Senate, which is unlikely to achieve the goal of charter change.
However, while Kao Klai may lose the charter amendment game, its move to “shut off the Senate” will undoubtedly win the hearts of the young anti-establishment protesters.
That should translate as a big advantage for the second-largest opposition party when it clashes head-on with Pheu Thai in the coming elections, starting with local administrative organisation polls later this year.
Kao Klai is a reincarnation of the now-defunct Future Forward Party, which debuted with an impressive 6.3-million votes in the March 2019 election and became the third-largest political party. Most of its supporters were young, first-time voters.
By refusing to support Kao Klai’s bill, Pheu Thai has upset the protesters, who responded by mocking the party with the slogan “Pheu [For] Thai or Pheu [For] Who? Why don’t [you] listen to the people’s voice?”.
The two main opposition parties share similar supporters — people who are anti-coup and anti-dictatorship. These people will now have to choose which of the two to vote for.
Kao Klai’s tough stance will certainly have satisfied many of those voters, giving it an edge over its larger competitor Pheu Thai.
By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk