In our politics, time really can stand still
A number of political developments, ie the waning pro-reform movement and the major loss of the Move Forward Party in local elections, may have given the Prayut Chan-o-cha government and the Palang Pracharath Party such a false sense of confidence that they feel they can now move to delay the process of rewriting the constitution.
Last week, the government was successful in its push to have the charter court rule if parliament can form a charter drafting committee (CDC) in accordance with Section 256, with its motion sailing through with 366 against 316 votes. But the powers-that-be must be careful not to miscalculate.
To begin with, it would be wrong to think that only pro-reform activists detest this military-sponsored 2017 charter. In fact, the PM and the PPRP should know a large number of politically neutral elements, including several high-profile business magnates, find a number of clauses in the current charter unacceptable with regard to unfair rules and distorted mechanisms that could enable elite cabals to make ill-gotten gains via nepotism.
This delaying tactic will only make things worse politically. Should the party want to ease political conflicts, it must move ahead with charter amendment, incorporating people's participation.
With fewer -- and smaller-scale -- demonstrations, compared to the peak period when several thousands hit the streets last year, it may look as if the pro-reform movement has lost its strength. But the PPRP cannot afford to disregard the protesters due to their physical inactivity as that may be more a symptom of the fresh coronavirus outbreak.
Peace may be just an illusion. Instead, the ruling party should be aware that the movement -- given the fact that their campaign issues like charter rewrite and political reform remain valid -- may rebound. The government's U-turn on a charter rewrite gives the movement justification to hit the streets once again. And this is unfortunate since the charter rewrite process seemed to be going well within the planned timelines. Three months after the House extraordinary committee on Section 256 amendment was tasked with the formation of a new charter drafting panel, it has made progress. It is to submit the proposal on the structure and composition of the 200-strong panel to parliament on Feb 24-25 with voting planned for March 16-17. The panel's proposal is noteworthy, with a change from a hybrid election and selection method that allows intervention by parliament to complete the selection of a people's panel.
Just as every party was seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the new political roadmap to the next election -- not coincidentally when the new charter, with its supposedly fair, acceptable rules becomes effective -- in March, 2023, the PPRP's ugly tactic, supported by some senators, has dimmed that hope. Their callous collaboration is a barely concealed ploy to kill the people's charter at every juncture.
The Feb 9 shenanigans are not the first time that Gen Prayut and the PPRP have used dirty tricks to draw the process out. This debacle contradicts the urgent "National Plan No.12", signed by the PM, which mandates charter amendment through public participation, and also reneges on promises he made in parliament. Before this, the PPRP tried to delay the rewrite by having a panel tasked with a charter rewrite conduct a study led by an adviser to the PM, Pirapan Salirathavibhaga. When the Pirapan panel completed its mission, the party called off the vote on the process until the next House meeting two months' later, and before leveraging its majority to propose another study on the charter drafts.
The time-buying tactic is ironic given the support the ruling party threw behind a national reconciliation committee set up as a solution to a national crisis.
I personally believe the Constitutional Court will not destroy the people's hopes of reconciliation. It will allow parliament to do its duty to work out peaceful solutions for society.
But if I am wrong and the court eventually endorses the controversial motion proposed by Paiboon Nititawan and Somchai Sawaengkarn that the formation of a CDC without a referendum is unconstitutional, there will be a political dilemma. Namely, such a ruling would go against precedents set in in 1949 and 1997.
It will be a tragedy if this parliament, with its elected politicians, is unable to form a CDC because that would mean the country missing the chance to use a parliamentary mechanism to settle a political crisis. Such a situation would simply justify "street politics" -- people will go out and demand change, and the country may plunge into another political abyss. If people cannot use their power through elected representatives, what else can they do? Or do they want the men in green to intervene, abolish the charter and start this vicious cycle all over again?
Obviously, the PPRP will do whatever it can to disrupt and prolong the process of drafting a new constitution. There are grounds to believe that even if a referendum comes out in favour of forming a CDC, the PPRP with the help of the Senate and its network of allies will just find another excuses to invalidate the result, most likely by seeking another ruling from the charter court so that the process cannot be completed within this parliament.
Their ultimate goal is obviously for the next election to be held under the current military-sponsored 2017 charter, meaning the Senate can once again endorse Gen Prayut as PM.
Such a scenario is more than just a shame, it's a political nightmare.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.