Charter rewrite backtracking a mistake
A political crisis seems unavoidable after politicians in the government coalition and the military-appointed Senate colluded in a charter rewrite vote which, in effect, slows down the rewrite process by another month.
The charter debacle, a version of time buying, came as Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and the conservative factions backtracked on the amendment out of fears they would lose the mechanisms that enable them to prolong their power.
The government, along with its senators, made the U-turn probably because they thought the pro-democracy protesters lost their momentum after crossing the line over the monarchy reform, a move that caused some alliances to keep away.
The ruling Palang Pracharath party (PPRP) and MPs in the coalition, together with the Senate, shamefully resorted to a parliamentary technicality that pushed a proposal to set up a study committee that is allowed one month to consider the six bills, even when the move was vetoed by the Democrats, a coalition party and the Opposition bloc.
This caused uproar. It disappointed many who believed the government and the Senate would accept a charter amendment as a way of drawing the country out of crisis and diffusing conflict. How wrong they were. Backtracking on the charter rewrite has simply fuelled public anger, and only given the pro-democracy activists a solid reason to mobilise people for another major rally in revenge to the dirty political game that tricked the public into believing the government actually supported the charter rewrite.
Previously, the government showed its support on various occasions. Earlier this year, it set up a panel under Pirapan Salirathavibhaga, adviser to the PM, to study a charter amendment. The panel recommended the amendment of section 256 of the charter to pave the way for the formation of a charter drafting committee. The PM pledged that he would comply with any recommendations made by the panel.
Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam told the media on several occasions he was open to the process, while the government proposed a referendum bill to accommodate the amendment. The bill was to be tabled to parliament in November.
The PPRP had also proposed the amendment bill, with the composition of the 260-strong charter drafting body. During the two-day session, the PPRP and coalition parties showed no signs would renege.
But eventually the military leaning government betrayed the public, refusing to give up its power, maintaining its unjustified political advantage, with the help of the 250-strong senate installed by the junta.
The government may claim that the amendment process has not been derailed and that it has just been given a temporary break, but what happened on Thursday simply showed a lack of sincerity.
During the debate, some senators seemed to give a strong hint the amendments would be dealt a hard time, with numerous obstacles including a proposal for a referendum, that is to ask the public right away if they would endorse the amendment process, instead of asking them to vote for the complete charter, as stipulated in the 2017 supreme law.
Besides, there are attempts to make the proposed amendment unconstitutional by referring to a ruling by the Constitutional Court in 2012 which aborted attempts by the then Yingluck Shinawatra government to amend the 2007 charter. At that time, the court ruled against the amendment process on the grounds that the 2007 charter had passed a referendum. There is a possibility that the court will be asked to go back to the same ruling. With such rationale, anti-charter amendment groups demand for a pre-drafting referendum.
Such a ruling is a key reference. To abolish a charter and replace it with another one requires a referendum. Some senators even claimed that some groups may appeal to the court to abort the amendment process on the grounds that changing Section 256, which stipulates the formation of a charter drafting panel, is unconstitutional.
In short, this was a plot to foil the amendment process, by the military-appointed Senate, with the use of a legal technicality. Like it or not, we will see the court which has been criticised for its ruling against the Future Forward Party dragged into politics.
Adding another referendum on top of the original two will make an amendment next to impossible as it will come with huge expenditure and take even longer. Mr Wissanu once said the process would take no less than two years.
But with some attempts by the powers-that-be to abort it, the process will take at least two and a half years and that means this government's tenure will end before the process is done. In that case, the next election will be held under the current 2017 charter with the same senate appointing the PM.
This dirty game will intensify political conflicts, as it gives anti-dictatorship groups a cause to go to the streets and kick the Prayut government out. Such a rally would attract more people, particularly those who had previously refrained from demonstrations.
The difficult part is that there is no guarantee the protesters will limit themselves to political demands. On the contrary, they may again touch upon the issue of monarchy reform, which could be even more dangerous.
Apart from rallies on the streets, MPs in the government bloc, especially the Democrats and minnow parties, will be pressured by their voters, who will demand they honour the promises they made about the charter amendment before the 2019 election.
These parties will find it necessary to distance themselves from this dirty game, or risk losing a political base.
In that case, it will rattle the Prayut government.
One month from now will see Thai politics shrouded in conflict. On the surface, the Prayut government seems to have won this political game but it will definitely encounter growing pressures, inside and outside parliament, while it loses support from the public.
The tumult may lead to, at best, House dissolution and new elections. But if the situation is out of control, a chance for another military intervention is also high.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.