Challenges, prospects of 2017 constitution

Challenges, prospects of 2017 constitution

Nearly three years after its last military coup, there is good and bad news as Thailand gears up to leave behind the current period of military government, whose record has been mixed at best.

The good news is that the country will re-enter a less authoritarian and more democratic political setting with eventual polls, probably late next year. The bad news, however, is the likely recurrence of post-election civil-military tensions and squabbles because the military has embedded its influence and supervision over Thai politics into the 2017 charter in a multi-layered fashion.

Notwithstanding the codified military dominance over the political system, Thailand's major protagonists must find a way to reset and come up with new rules and a new working understanding to capitalise on this rare window of opportunity for the country to regain its footing. If Thailand squanders this chance at a compromised and rebalancing of the political landscape, it may waste another decade on conflict and confrontation after years of polarisation and relative inertia. Several ramifications now stem from the newly promulgated charter.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak is associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University.

First, the 2007 constitution reverses progress on the Thai people's representation that culminated with the 1997 constitution after the military was disgraced in 1992 for being a disguised dictatorship and for shooting pro-democracy protesters in the streets of Bangkok. The current constitution is a throwback to Thailand's undemocratic past based on an engineered legislature that gives the 250-member military-appointed senate latitude to hold the elected lower house in check. All the generals will need is 126 out of 500 lower house MPs to gather a simple majority and win key votes, including the selection of the prime minister after the election.

As its overall structure is premised against elected representatives, the new charter harbours distrust and disdain towards the electorate. Thai politicians have been notoriously corrupt and shoddy over the years but when they get their chance at power the men in uniform have proven not to be all that clean. The difference is that the electorate are allowed to take politicians to task in ways that are not allowed under military rule. This reality will become increasingly evident as the election date draws nearer.

The critical constitutional change is the appointed senate, which is one third of the entire legislature, fully under the military's purview. In the 1997 reform-oriented charter and its 2007 successor to a lesser extent (the latter produced by the 2006 coup), the senate was either fully or partly elected and played a vital role in staffing the independent agencies like the election and anti-corruption agencies and the Constitutional Court to promote accountability and transparency. With the senate now fully under military control, the accountability-promoting agencies may be suspect and subservient to military prerogatives.

Second, the new charter reshapes the three branches of government. The executive has been directly weakened, and it will prove difficult for the next elected civilian-led government to implement a legislative agenda. For example, it has to report and justify to independent agencies as to why certain investment projects are worthwhile. Fiscal policy and budget expenditures will be constitutionally scrutinised.

The National Anti-Corruption Commission, moreover, will be dominated for the next five years by junta-chosen appointees who will likely check on the corruption of politicians more than generals. The judiciary has lost credibility in recent years but yet has been vested with more authority in the new charter, while the legislature has been fragmented and penetrated by military interests. In fact, the military can now be said to form Thailand's fourth branch of government.

Under new rules, military interests in the senate, the judiciary, and the independent agencies are less connected and accountable to the electorate. Whether this pre-1997 constitutional setup can carry the day and produce the kind of political system that can work for Thailand will still depend on voter preferences. Despite the rules being stacked against their represented voices, voters will still count when their time comes. If there is a broad-based backlash against the military by that time, it could be to the benefit of the established political parties. But if the military can divide and co-opt political parties and maximise its constitutional opportunities, then its longer-term dominance of Thai politics may be viable.

Third, as the royal ceremony surrounding the promulgation was timed to usher in a new reign in an auspicious manner, this means it may be hard to come up with a completely new and more balanced charter. This charter, in other words, now has some staying power, although all of its 19 precursors were eventually upended.

Whatever changes that are needed to rebalance the lopsided appointments system and popular representation may have to be done through amendments because this charter now carries more weight. Democratic aspirations in the charter will have to be expressed by way of amendments rather than a complete rewrite for the foreseeable future.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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