To push for a charter rewrite, the main tactic used by the Yingluck Shinawatra administration now is to keep testing the water to gauge public reactions. There have been news and rumours intentionally leaked by both the strategic committee under the Pheu Thai Party and by the charter amendment panel under the coalition government.
They offer different methods to push for charter change, the bill for which is now pending a third House reading.
Despite the efforts to wrap up the changes to the constitution rewrite, it is certain the the process will become a long-running drama.
The amendment bill had passed its second reading, but was brought to a halt by the Democrat Party's petition to the Constitution Court. According to the Democrats, the bill was set to pass its third reading with a majority vote from Pheu Thai MPs and Pheu Thai-supporting senators. But with the ambiguity still surrounding the sections concerning the monarchy, the Democrats argued that the passage of the rewrite bill might end up abolishing the constitutional monarchy.
The Constitution Court ruled that the third reading should be delayed and suggested amending the charter section-by-section. Should the government want to rewrite the whole constitution, the Constitution Court ruled that there should be a referendum on this move first. Since the current charter has been approved by a referendum, comprehensive changes to the constitution should be approved by the public in a referendum too, the court reasoned.
The Yingluck government apparently does not want to get bogged down with controlling mobs. At present, the government is already overwhelmed by many protest groups and by plunging commodity prices. If the government proceeds with changing the constitution amid fierce opposition, it fears it may be unable to handle an avalanche of political protests. This would also seriously harm the atmosphere for political reconciliation. Worse, it could trigger another round of fiery political conflict, which the government does not want to face.
According to the Pheu Thai strategic committee, there are many possible ways to push the charter rewrite forward including: revoking the third reading effort, starting from the beginning by proposing the amendment of Section 291 once again, and making it clear in the constitutional amendment bill that a referendum is needed before the setting up of a charter drafting assembly to avoid the same problems reoccurring as with the opposition's petition to the Constitution Court.
The prime minister says she and her brother, deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, are of the same opinion that this is necessary to prevent political conflicts.
The Interior and Justice ministries, she says, are now in charge of organising public campaigns on the need to rewrite the constitution. In addition to being a social contract with voters, the constitution rewrite is also part of the government's policy declaration in parliament. The referendum, Ms Yingluck says, shows her intention to involve the public before the real process of rewriting the charter starts, and also to prevent another round of political conflicts.
PM's Office Minister Varathep Ratanakorn, in his capacity as secretary of the coalition government's 11-member charter rewrite committee, told the Bangkok Post that the government would not rush the rewrite bill through its third reading. The lengthy delay shows society is still ridden with political divisiveness, he added. It also shows the government's intention to avoid political clashes.
In the referendum, it is most likely the public will be asked if they agree with a rewrite of the whole charter or not. The public will be informed that the government received an electoral mandate to amend the charter, and that it is already government policy declared to parliament. The most important point, he said, is that the current constitution is the fruit of the 2006 coup d'etat with many undemocratic elements. For example, Section 237 allows the dissolution of political parties. The selection process of members of independent organisations also lacks public accountability. The new charter wants all senators to be elected.
"We have to admit that a referendum will be a costly process," Mr Varathep said. "But it is worth it if we can retain economic confidence in the country. It's certainly better than allowing the situation to remain vague and politically volatile."
If the referendum result is in favour of a rewrite and the new constitution is drafted by a group of people who are elected by the people, then the new charter will certainly last longer than the one made by coup makers, Mr Varathep said.
Not everyone buys his argument. One of them is Komsan Pokong, a legal expert at Sukhothai University, who was in the constitution drafting assembly for the present charter. He says claim that the current charter is undemocratic is only an excuse to do away with independent organisations which have been set up to monitor politicians closely.
"Politicians say that they want to serve the country. They should then accept that their work must be transparent, open to systematic monitoring, and be accountable to the public," Mr Komsan said.
"They're frustrated with the close monitoring institutionalised by the present charter. So it's not surprising that there are efforts to abolish and replace it with a new one," he said.
Nattaya Chetchotiros is Assistant News Editor, Bangkok Post.
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- Writer: Nattaya Chetchotiros