Draft constitution faces uphill
battle in Thailand By Ron
BANGKOK - Thailand's draft
constitution faces a difficult national referendum
in September, with provisions aimed at limiting
the influence of political parties and the
executive branch and amendments to the previous
charter that allow for an appointed rather than
The draft, released for
public debate last week by the military-appointed
35-member Constitution Drafting Committee, comes
seven months after elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra
overthrown in a military coup. He stands accused
by the military of corruption, sowing national
divisions and abusing his powers under the 1997
constitution. Lese majeste charges filed by
the coup makers against the exiled premier were
dropped this month by a criminal court.
Since their takeover last September, the
military coup makers have limited the public's
role in the political process, alarming the
established political parties and pro-democracy
groups. The new constitution will be Thailand's
18th since it became a constitutional monarchy in
If passed in its proposed form, the
new charter will reduce the number of elected
members of Parliament from 500 to 400 and limit
any prime minister's tenure to a maximum of eight
years, or two four-year terms. At the same time,
it will make it easier for individual politicians
to switch political parties in the lead-up to an
election, which Thai history has shown undermines
the influence of the political-party system.
Political analysts say the new charter
clearly aims to prevent a recurrence of the
concentration of political power that occurred
under Thaksin's Thai Rak Thai Party, which built
up a massive majority in Parliament.
first draft of the new charter is designed to
prevent the monopolization of Thai politics that
was seen under overthrown prime minister Thaksin
Shinawatra's five-year rule," political
commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak recently wrote
in a local newspaper. "It is practically revenge
on the so-called Thaksin regime and a rejection of
the hard-won principles enshrined in the previous
1997 'people's charter'."
The 1997 charter
was a progressive reaction to the country's
tumultuous political past, which in recent years
has vacillated between military and democratic
rule. After the bloody crackdown by the military
in 1992 on pro-democracy protests, spurred partly
by the military appointment of a non-elected prime
minister, the 1997 constitution aimed to keep the
military permanently out of politics.
Overseeing that constitution's drafting
was an elected - not appointed - drafting
assembly, which solicited suggestions from a wide
cross-section of the grassroots population, and
the draft was widely debated before being
presented to Parliament. Already the new document
has been greeted with skepticism and criticism and
as a backward step in the country's stop-and-go
efforts to promote democracy.
Choonhavan, a former elected senator, says the
proposal for a non-elected Senate will be widely
regretted by pro-democracy advocates. "The issue
which is very worrisome is that they want the
Senate to be a rubber stamp - meaning appointed.
Can you believe that in a democracy? Such things
are clearly a regression," Kraisak said.
Democratic resentment Others are
simply looking at the new charter to overcome the
perceived weaknesses in the 1997 constitution that
enabled Thaksin to concentrate political power.
Narudh Chevamahara, a 22-year-old economics
student at Chulalongkorn University, wants the new
charter to avoid a repeat of the previous
constitution had loopholes the government used to
corrupt or basically cheat the people. [So] each
loophole [should] be closed down," said Narudh.
"What worries me is the people might have an
anti-government sentiment and they might end up
saying okay, since the government is doing a bad
job, and they might say okay, this constitution
would be as bad as the government - and simply
reject it. I think the people have to study more
on this constitution before judging whether it is
good or not."
Already a range of groups
from pro-Thaksin supporters to anti-military and
coup groups, academics and civil society
organizations have voiced their opposition to the
charter. Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD)
secretary general Suriyasai Katasila told The
Nation newspaper that the constitution would
weaken "people's power" as well as that of
democratically elected politicians.
same time, the new charter does provide room for
the people to check and balance politicians and
propose new laws. For instance, the number of
signatures required to launch a possible
impeachment motion against wayward politicians has
been reduced from 50,000 under the previous
charter to 20,000 under the proposed new one. The
same number of signatures is required for the
people to propose new laws to Parliament.
The new charter also raises the profile of
the judiciary, which was allegedly undermined
under Thaksin's rule. Senior judges will have
unprecedented authority to select and approve
commissioners of the so-called independent
institutions, including the Election Commission
and a revamped National Counter Corruption
Commission. A special 11-person committee,
including the prime minister, the parliamentary
president, the Senate president, and senior judges
will be set up to resolve national crises.
"Many people may think judges are much
more honest and credible than politicians. But too
much power centered in the courts could eventually
result in a possible corruption of the courts -
and abuse by the various courts themselves," wrote
popular newspaper commentator Pravit Rojanaphruk.
Supavud Saicheua, chief economist for
Bangkok-based Phatra Securities, notes that
Thailand's earliest possible return to democracy
will require the draft constitution being backed
by a public referendum.
"In this way, the
Thai people are becoming aware that the new
constitution need not necessarily be better than
the previous one written meticulously in 1997," he
said. "Indeed, the new constitution can be worse.
But the Thai people will have to live with it
anyway because without it, the country will not be
returned to democracy."
rejection of the charter would open the way for
the junta to choose at random one of the country's
past and potentially even less democratic
constitutions and arrange for general elections
tentatively scheduled for mid-December with no
"Even though I think the
new constitution is rather flexible and relatively
well designed," said Chulalongkorn University
economist Somphob Manarangsan, "to be accepted
under the current circumstances is not going to be