16 July 2024

A heated and lengthy debate accompanied by chaos including a walkout are expected in Parliament when the charter amendment draft bill returns for its third and final reading on March 17-18. 

Meanwhile, another legal review will likely be sought if the bill sails through.

Supporters and opponents are already locking horns over the previous review, by the Constitutional Court. Last week, the court confirmed that Parliament had the authority to write a new Constitution, but ruled that a national referendum must be held first to find out if the public actually wants a new charter.

Parliament President Chuan Leekpai has signalled that a vote on the third reading will go ahead as scheduled.

Amid confusion and divided opinion over the court ruling, critics foresee three possible scenarios.

Fast-track scenario

Parliament votes to pass the bill, and the national referendum is held within 90-120 days. If the public votes “yes” then the charter rewrite process will begin with the election of a 200-member Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA).

Opposition parties led by Pheu Thai and Kao Klai are expected to vote for the charter amendment draft, likely supported by coalition partners the Democrat Party and Bhumjaithai. This camp believes the ongoing amendment process is not a charter rewrite, meaning the court ruling does not affect it.

Supporters of charter change see this scenario as the best, insisting it will reduce pressure from street protests and prove the government is sincere in supporting amendment of a junta-sponsored Constitution labelled undemocratic by protesters. However, to pass, the bill requires support from 84 senators – and there is very little chance of that happening.

“Lawmakers should let the public have the final say [in a referendum] on whether they want a new charter,” said Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist at Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University.

Charter Court requires referendum prior to drafting of new constitution

The Constitutional Court today ruled that Parliament is constitutionally empowered to draft a new constitution but that a referendum needs to be held to get prior public consent. The much-awaited ruling has set off a new round of debate as to whether Parliament can still go ahead with the third and final reading of the constitutional amendment bill scheduled for March 17.

Delay scenario

Second, lawmakers delay the vote to first allow the public to vote on charter change in a national referendum, as per another interpretation of the court ruling. If the bill passes the referendum then they return to vote in the third reading. But if not, the bill is shot down.

Or, Parliament could vote to set up a panel to study the court’s verdict before deciding its next move.

Observers say this scenario is least probable but could buy time for a government and senators seeking to prolong their constitutional power. They would face pressure from the public to hold a referendum as soon as possible, but this would sap momentum from the anti-establishment movement’s next rally scheduled for March 20.

Wanwichit Boonprong, a political scientist at Rangsit University, supports this scenario, which would freeze the Parliamentary process until the referendum result is known.

“This won’t waste the ongoing charter-change process, since the referendum will decide if the amendment bill can move forward or must be dropped,” Wanwichit said.

Most likely scenario

In the third scenario, ruling Palang Pracharath MPs and senators opposed to charter change shoot the bill down.

Lawmakers who support this idea interpret the court ruling as a directive for charter amendment to go back to square one, with a referendum to seek the public’s consent before the process can begin.

Many observers reckon this is the most likely scenario, but also the worst since it will shatter the push for a more democratic charter and lead to another political breaking point.

Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist at King Prajadhipok’s Institute, believes there will be an attempt to block the vote in the third reading, but if this fails the draft will be voted down anyway.

After the bill is shot down, moves to rewrite or amend the charter section by section can start in May as per the court ruling during the next Parliament session.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, the government’s legal expert, said last week that if the bill passes its third reading, someone may seek a further ruling on its legality.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk