Thailand’s constitution: back to the future

Thailand’s recently rejected constitution is back with the government’s scriptwriters, but we should not expect an entirely original sequel

Pavin Chachavalpongpun
October 15, 2015
Thailand’s constitution: back to the future

Thailand’s recently rejected constitution is back with the government’s scriptwriters, but we should not expect an entirely original sequel

If Southeast Asia were a hospital, Thailand would be one deathly ill patient. And the bad news is, its condition is worsening. The first draft of the new constitution emerged last month as a determinant factor that would underpin the regime of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. Ironically, it was rejected by committees that were appointed by the military itself. Now the question is: Why?

Thienchay Kiranandana, Thailand, Constitution
Back to square one: National Reform Council (NRC) chair Thienchay Kiranandana in front of NRC members following a vote on Thailand’s new draft constitution on 6 September. Photo: Narong Sangnak/EPA

One theory is that the rejection allows the military to stay in power as the process of drafting a new constitution begins. In other words, the military is buying some time – and hence postponing democratic elections – at this critical stage leading up to the imminent royal transition due to the King’s deteriorating health.

Another theory points to the possibility of an internal struggle among members of the constitutional drafting committees. They were split into two groups: conservative and progressive. The conservative wing preferred to see the military hang onto power, since they believed the military could be entrusted to handle the royal succession. The progressives, meanwhile, wanted Thailand to move ahead with an election.

In any case it seems the military has simply pressed the reset button and Thailand is back to where it started in the aftermath of last year’s coup. Now a whole new set of constitutional drafting committees must be established, which will not be an easy task. Plus, the failure of the last constitution demands these new committees think carefully about producing a charter that will appeal more to the public.

The new constitution will undoubtedly determine Thailand’s political landscape for years to come. However, although it might be written to reflect certain public needs, it may still serve as a platform for key figures in the military and in the old establishment to retain their positions of power. If this were the case then one would expect the new constitution to have an eye on weakening future civilian governments, rather than empowering them.

Thailand’s pro-coup elites have traditionally distrusted electoral democracy, politicians and rural voters, seeing them as obstacles to their own power. The coup thus presented an opportunity for them to reinvent a political system in which the electoral power of the majority of voters would be reduced. I, for one, am curious to see if the new constitution will stipulate whether the prime minister must be a member of parliament or a member of any political party. If not, this would certainly be a step backwards for the country’s political development.

One aspect of the previous draft may well remain in the next one: the creation of a fragmented House of Representatives. The elites have never hidden their desire to create a factional parliament that would lead to a weak government. In a provision outlined in the recent draft, electoral candidates would not have to be affiliated with any political party, potentially creating a parliament filled with many small parties and independents. In practical terms, this strategy was designed to break up the domination of big political parties – such as those linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – and seemed to favour small- and medium-sized parties. The pro-elite Democrat Party could possibly gain the most out of the potential new design.

As expected, the new constitution may also give more authority to the judiciary and independent organisations such as the National Anti-Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Court, which would serve as political instruments of the elite in battling future governments. The majority of Redshirts have long lost faith in Thailand’s judicial authorities, and they have no trust in independent organisations which, they claim, have never really been independent.

So what can one expect from the launch of the constitution, the election and the eventual return to civilian rule? Perhaps a non-MP prime minister being selected to lead the next government is on the cards. Rumour has it that this provision could pave the way for the current prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, to return to premiership once again – legitimately this time.

If pro-elite factions were able to form the government, one would see a relatively close collaboration between the lower and upper houses. If somehow a Thaksin faction managed to take back political power, the parliament would become a fierce battlefield between the two houses.

From this perspective it is likely that even with another constitution the election will not solve Thailand’s political crisis. Instead, the election is likely to entrench the position of the old establishment and alienate its opposition in the Thaksin camp.

Thailand’s future does not look rosy. Now that the military is looking for a new team to draft the constitution, the country is falling into a vacuum filled with political uncertainties and public anxieties. No matter what happens, I predict that the rest of this year and the whole of 2016 will see Thailand firmly under the thumb of authoritarianism. 

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is associate professor at Kyoto University’s Centre of Southeast Asian Studies.

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