Section 279 must go

Section 279 must go

As political parties gear up for their election campaigns ahead of the Feb 24 poll, a rare meeting of minds has emerged this week among three key parties. The Democrat, Future Forward and Pheu Thai parties, who habitually disagree on contentious issues, have agreed on the need for constitutional amendments and the removal of the regime's seeping Section 44 orders. They all said they would prioritise these tasks if elected to the Lower House.

This is an ambitious goal that deserves the support of voters. It is the direction Thailand needs to move in if real democratic rule is ever to be restored.

At a recent forum in Bangkok, key members of the three parties pointed out correctly that the constitution and the orders issued by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) under Section 44 of the interim charter are both undemocratic and problematic.

Section 44 grants absolute power to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in his capacity as head of the NCPO.

The current 2017 charter is one of the most backward versions ever of the supreme law after Thailand adopted its widely respected "people's constitution" in 1997.

When it seized power from the elected government in 2014, the NCPO pledged to reconcile the nation, bring about national reform and tackle corruption. Yet it has achieved too little in those areas. What it has succeeded in doing is paving the way to prolong its power -- with the help of the charter drafters it recruited.

As a result, the constitution allows the NCPO to handpick all 250 senators who will have unprecedented power in terms of voting for a prime minister along with MPs following the general election.

Over their five-year term, the senators will be able to engage in two prime ministerial votes. This new rule will turn the Upper House into a power broker, rather than a checks-and-balances mechanism. Even after this five-year period, another group of 200 senators will also be selected, not elected.

Meanwhile, many provisions in the charter will weaken the stability of an elected government and give it less flexibility to administer the country. The Constitutional Court and independent public agencies will have too much power to keep the government in check. At the same time, subsequent governments will be required to follow the 20-year national strategy, authored by the current military regime. This is not a good thing. Governments need stability and flexibility to execute their policies.

Worse still, the charter drafters have invented a new electoral system that aims to weaken large and small parties but strengthen those of a medium size. Starting with the upcoming poll, a single ballot will be used for both constituency and party-list MPs. This system will make elections prone to vote-buying and vulnerable to the influence of local politicians, given that political parties will pitch constituency MP candidates to voters, rather than present the parties' policies.

The most toxic part of the charter, however, is Section 279, which legalises all NCPO orders even after the formation of a new government. While many NCPO orders hinder the rights and liberties of the public while overriding existing laws and the constitution, Section 279 turns them into permanent laws unless parliament passes new acts to repeal them. All three parties decided this was in urgent need of reform.

There are many other problematic provisions that should be highlighted on the campaign trail by parties that want to amend the charter. This would also be an effective way to educate the public about the charter, a job poorly handled by the regime and Election Commission during the 2016 constitutional referendum, which was held under a climate of fear and the suppression of free speech.

Amending the charter is not an easy job for MPs, given that the regime has set rigid rules therein on how it could be done. But these three parties deserve our support for their determination to achieve this goal. Unlike the regime, which ripped up the 2007 charter by force, they plan to get it changed in parliament.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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