Govt and Senate are playing with fire
While the movement for charter amendment as demanded by student activists appears to be gaining steam, with the formation of a constitutional drafting panel under way, there are signs some senators may already be backpedalling. There are suspicions this may be a tactic by the Prayut Chan-o-cha government to derail the process.
It is known the Senate holds the key to charter amendments because one third of the Senate, which equates to 84 votes, is needed to facilitate changes to the supreme law.
There are two central issues at play at the moment. The first stems from calls to "switch off" the current Senate's power to vote for the prime minister along with the Lower House, as stipulated by Section 276 of the constitution.
The second is debate surrounding the formation of a charter drafting panel which requires amendment of Section 256 to allow the country to enact an entirely new constitution, not just section-by-section changes.
Both proposals forwarded by politicians of the government and opposition camps aim at creating a 200-strong panel for the task, although the composition of the panels suggested differs. According to the government-sponsored proposal, 150 drafters would come from a direct election. The remaining 50 are to be selected from three groups: students (10) by parliament; and legal experts (20) and political experts (20) would be named by university rectors.
The opposition's proposal, meanwhile, sees the entire 200-strong panel elected directly.
As the parliamentary session for charter amendment is set for Sept 23-24, the countdown has begun. There have been strange signals from some senators who seem to have shifted stance from supporting a completely new charter written by a panel formed according to Section 256, to a section-by-section rewrite, focussing on removing the Senate's right to join the vote on choosing a prime minister as cited in Section 272.
Such a shift is a worrying surprise.
Among the 250-strong Senate appointed by the now-defunct National Council for Peace and Order regime, there are three factions. The first, with 60-80 senators, is a group that supports forming a panel to draft a new charter; the second, some 80 senators, endorses section by section amendments, while the remaining 100 are yet to make their stance clear.
Those who oppose the formation of a "CDC" claim they have reservations that the process is akin to handing the panel a blank cheque with no guarantee of an improved document at the end of it. They have also expressed concern that this path would likely take up to two years and require two referendums, although this complaint bears little scrutiny.
More importantly, by rejecting the formation of a new CDC while political conflict simmers reflects a couldn't-care-less attitude by this group of senators. Evidently, they seem to place little importance in moving the country out of its current political deadlock. This appears to reflect a level of confidence, possibly even over-confidence, on the part of the Senate and the government in their ability to control the political situation as student activists have, so far, seemed less aggressive over the past weeks.
But such confidence could be premature. The government should be aware the students have only adopted what appears to be a softer stance because of its initial acquiescence to their demands.
Any backpedalling on the matter by the Senate could re-ignite the conflict, and draw an even bigger crowd to the students' Sept 19 rally which will be led by key figures like Panusya Sitthichirawat and Parit Chivarak. It should be noted they have extended their goals beyond just the demand for a new charter.
Indeed the Sept 19 rally has been dubbed a step towards "returning the power to the people" in a drive to usher in a form of democracy acceptable to all. It is believed that with this as its rallying call, thousands will join the demonstration.
Past weeks have seen the government trying to play tricks. On the one hand, it has tried to defuse political tension with the release of human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa and student leader Panupong Jadnok from detention which was deemed to lower the political mercury. On the other hand, the authorities have summoned political activists to hear charges related to the rallies, in what protesters claim is an act of intimidation.
Therefore, our political situation today goes beyond drafting a new charter or forming a CDC. It's more about every political faction making a concerted effort to draw up new, fairer political rules and stop a conflict from swelling into a crisis. Yet, the senators' backtracking shows insincerity on the part of the government in reaching a solution.
There has also emerged a new ultra-right-wing "Thai Pakdee" group, under Warong Dejkitvigrom which has launched a campaign against charter amendments. Mr Warong claims the group has gathered tens of thousands of signatures.
At the same time, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam have claimed two referendums would be too costly, at almost 10 billion baht, and time-consuming. By the time the new charter is done, this government will almost have completed its tenure, and the House will be dissolved to pave the way for a new election.
The next two weeks will be crucial, politically. If the Senate withdraws its support for charter amendments, while the government distances itself from its pledges, public anger will grow and the Sept 19 rally could see a dangerous change of tone in the current protests.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.