15 February 2016

“The draft charter is retrogressive...”

Democracy Monument

The Constitution Drafting Committee has announced the completion of proposed new constitution, which will be put to a referendum later this year. Meanwhile, the prospect of an election continues to recede, as the Bangkok Post noted in an editorial on 1st February: “The roadmap produced shortly after the May 22, 2014, coup promised elections would be held in 2015. A subsequent roadmap promised elections in mid-2016. That then became 2017...”

The proposed constitution is a replacement for the previous draft, which was controversial as article 260 authorised an unelected committee to seize power from the government in an emergency. That draft was rejected by the National Reform Council last September, and Meechai Ruchuphan was appointed to lead a new CDC. (Meechai is a distinctly pro-military politician: he led the tribunal that exonerated Suchinda Kraprayoon after ‘Black May’ in 1992, and he was President of the National Legislative Assembly following the 2006 coup.)

Democrat Party leader (and former PM) Abhisit Vejjajiva told the Bangkok Post: “The draft charter is retrogressive compared to the 2007 charter”. Abhisit was even more critical last year, when the CDC’s first proposed charter was being drafted: “This is a step backward for democracy. It will snatch democracy away from the people”.

One of the main points of contention is that, under the proposed new voting system, constituency and ‘party list’ MPs will appear on a single ballot paper. Under this system, the main political parties would have a reduced overall share of the votes, potentially making it harder to gain an outright majority in parliament. (Thaksin Shinawatra and his sister Yingluck are the only leaders to win overall parliamentary majorities, and they were both deposed by coups aimed at ending their political influence.)

The draft constitution’s provision for an unelected Senate (article 102) is equally controversial. It specifies that senators will be selected from a series of committees, a reversal of the changes made in the 1997 constitution. (After the 2007 constitution, the Senate was 50% elected; an attempt to restore a 100% elected Senate was rejected by the Constitutional Court.) The unelected senators will also be given votes on the appointment of a new prime minister.

The proposal also allows political parties to nominate prime ministers who are not elected politicians, and confirms the Constitutional Court as the final arbiter in disputes over issues not covered in the charter (article 207). This replaces the vague article seven from the 2007 constitution, though the Constitutional Court’s political neutrality has been repeatedly questioned, after it disqualified Thaksin, Samak Sundaravej, and Somchai Wongsawat.

Needless to say, like all post-coup charters, the constitution also includes an unconditional amnesty for the coup leaders (article 270). This is carried over from the interim constitution, and is arguably the most contentious element of the entire document.

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