Building broad support for constitutional reform

Building broad support for constitutional reform

Former Democrat Party member Parit Wacharasindhu speaks on constitutional changes at a press conference at Thammasat University last month.  (Photo by Watcharawit Phudork)
Former Democrat Party member Parit Wacharasindhu speaks on constitutional changes at a press conference at Thammasat University last month.  (Photo by Watcharawit Phudork)

As is characteristic of our polarised society, opinion is deeply divided on whether the 2017 constitution should be amended.

Some will say that constitutional revision is effectively hopeless, a remote possibility until the powers that be permit an amendment. The government has placed constitutional revision as one of its urgent priorities due to coalition pressure, but little action has been taken.

The past few weeks have not been encouraging for outside activism, with opposition leaders being accused of sedition after an academic suggested amending Article I at a town hall in the deep South. But incendiary proposals were never a good means to convince would-be supporters; instead, it is simply more likely to alienate those who otherwise would be open to this discussion.

Instead, advocates need to focus on attracting a larger coalition in support of revision, not alienating them. And in the absence of official urgency, only sufficient societal pressure can lead to change, no matter how difficult that may be. Therefore, the path forward for constitutional revision appears to require the building of broad consensus, even with those unlikely to already support amendment.

But how can this be done?

The first step is to ensure that constitutional revision is coated in bipartisan colours. Generating greater support for constitutional revision requires bringing together people of all political persuasions.

The Future Forward Party has attempted to make this issue look as bipartisan as possible. At several town halls, the party has brought both progressive superstars such as their own party leaders, but also more conservative figures such as former foreign minister Kasit Piromya and former election commissioner Somchai Srisutthiyakorn. More such events should be held.

Another critical strategy is to make clearly and forcefully the argument that constitutional amendment is necessary to improve the lives of ordinary people.

Opponents of constitutional amendment often argue that revision should not be a priority. After all, are bread and butter issues not more important than an abstract charter? Why be distracted by constitutional affairs when there are pressing economic matters to tend to?

It is not difficult to see why this viewpoint has gained traction. The truth, however, is that the 2017 constitution and the economy are issues that are deeply intertwined.

Thammasat University assistant professor Prajak Kongkirati made this point clear in an article in August about why framing the choice as focusing on improving people's livelihoods or constitutional revision is a false dichotomy. He argues that the 2017 constitution is not conducive for economic growth for several reasons.

The 2017 charter creates weak coalition governments, a factor which alone can severely impact the economic environment. It generates political instability -- important for business confidence -- and makes it difficult to pass urgent legislation. The government's thin majority in the House of Representatives, a direct result of constitutional mechanisms, has made even passing a budget a difficult task.

The policymaking process is also hampered as coalition governments involving multiple parties are less likely to cooperate well. Important economic ministries, in particular, are currently controlled by different parties. This leaves economic policy as uncoordinated, producing fragmented policies where a unified vision is necessary.

Making the link between why the link exists between the abstract -- constitutional revision -- and the concrete -- economic policymaking -- should be put front and centre in the effort by advocates to convince sceptics. Building broader support for amendment starts with convincing people that they, too, will be better off if there is political change.

Third, more has to be done to persuade society that democracy is still a worthwhile system to fight for.

The truth is that in Thailand, there is no consensus that liberal democracy must be Thailand's system of governance.

Scepticism in democracy is high in some segments of the population, and sentiments such as "Thailand needs a Lee Kuan Yew" is not uncommon.

To try to convince sceptics of representative government that the undemocratic 2017 constitution has to be amended so that it becomes more democratic is thus likely to fall on deaf ears.

Proponents of constitutional revision, then, need to go back to ground zero if they want to build broader support: they need to make the case that a Thai liberal democracy can and should be constructed.

An effort that is worth commending is by Parit Wacharasindhu, who has emerged after resigning from the Democrat Party as a proponent of constitutional revision. In addition to founding an organisation dedicated to promoting charter reform, he recently released a book titled Why So Democracy, an attempt to explain to a general audience the benefits of democratic government.

Mr Parit's example is one that should be emulated by other politicians, who should also continue finding creative and accessible ways to promote democratic values.

Bismarck once said that politics is the art of the possible. At this point, revising the 2017 constitution still seems like a task too difficult given the unfavourable political terrain. But it is also the art of politics to make possible what once seemed impossible, and to create those conditions would require building consensus amongst large swathes of society, even with those who are not naturally ideologically so inclined, that reform will be beneficial for Thailand. No matter how uphill the battle may be, this is a battle worth fighting.

Ken Lohatepanont is a political science student at the University of California, Berkeley.


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