Thai politics needs a middle pathway
The ditching of a charter amendment bill by the joint parliament chambers is anything but a surprise. Yet, it would be wrong to think that the defeat is the end of the pro-democracy movement's audacious campaign. Indeed all factions realise nullifying the military-sponsored 2017 charter will be a drawn-out case of political warfare.
Parliament on Wednesday killed off the proposed bill, touted as the "people's charter", proposed by the ReSolution group, the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), the Progressive Movement and the Move Forward party (MFP) with 473:206 votes in the first reading. The approval required 362 votes from the joint chambers, including one-third of the Senate, or 83 senators.
It's not the first time that the parliament established under the 2017 charter killed a charter bill proposed by the people's sector. Last year, it dropped a bill proposed by iLaw that sought to uproot undemocratic provisions put in place by the military regime under Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha and the National Council for Peace and Order ie the appointed Senate and outsider prime minister. The bill also aimed to strip the senate's power in naming the premier, and scrap the 20-year national reform scheme initiated by the military regime.
But the Prayut government has no real intention to amend the charter which gives it an advantage over political rivals. Its promises on this crucial topic are just a lie.
Despite relentless efforts, the only progress the people's sector has made was to push for the rewriting of Section 256 that stipulated the establishment of a charter drafting panel. Such a development rekindled hopes about a more democratic charter, but only ended in disappointment when the government, with the help of the Senate, dumped the proposal as they wanted to maintain the advantage under the 2017 charter. In October, the government presented the final amendment draft, with only small changes, a switch from seat allocation to the original party-list system, to the palace. The government version is seen as a joint effort by Palang Pracharath and the Pheu Thai Party, the opposition bloc leader, out of joint benefits for the next election. In doing so, the two parties shrugged off public hopes of democratisation. The government's 12-point policy that includes charter amendment is just a farce.
Despite Wednesday's result, it doesn't mean the charter amendment campaign is dead. The MFP has vowed to pursue it as an election policy in the next polls. The campaign also sparked public enthusiasm for political change, particularly the abolition of the military-leaning Senate. The effort has not been a total waste.
It would be naive to think that the people's draft bill, which focused on the abolition of the Prayut regime, was a panacea. In fact, had it sailed through during Wednesday's session, we could have seen political conflict intensify. Aspirations for drastic changes, ie the radical reform of the higher institution, would face fierce resistance from conservatives.
In addition, a demand for a unicameral House with new powers for the House of Representatives, including the impeachment of court judges, was seen as too extreme and that it put off some supporters out of concern that such a proposal could end up breeding a "parliamentary dictatorship", which is no lesser an evil. There were fears the proposal, which aims primarily to demolish the Prayut regime, may create a new political monster.
In fact, the saga reminds many of when Thailand had an overpowering political party during the time of tycoon-turned-politician Thaksin Shinawatra, whose TRT won by a landslide. His government was tainted with corruption scandals but given the House majority, it always escaped scrutiny. In addition to weakening checks and balances, Thaksin was infamous for his intervention in all independent agencies and institutions including the Senate, set up in accordance with the 1997 charter, as well as the media in order to keep his status quo.
It's the Thaksin regime that undermined the moral principles under the 1997 constitution that is touted as the best charter the country has ever had. The uprising against the Thaksin regime gave the men in uniform their coup in 2006, and since then the country has been under a military shadow.
Back to Wednesday's saga -- it's believed that the campaigners may not have such lofty goals as abolishing the military-sponsored Senate. But putting up such an extreme proposal might just have been a bargaining tactic, with the hope that after tense negotiations, the demands would come down to what the movement really wants. It's arguable that the activists knew from the beginning that the bill would be shot down but by making the move, they wanted the campaign to be a wake-up call and in this sense, they succeeded.
But the bill, unlike the iLaw version, was deemed too extreme and it would only lead to further confrontation. The contentious part focusing on monarchy reform as well as the amendment of draconian Section 112, would only spark more crisis.
As I said earlier, though they suffered a defeat in parliament, the campaigners have won a political battle, successfully advancing their ideas which, in time, could become a political agenda without compromise.
Yet it's necessary for all sides to learn that what this country needs is a middle path, with its factions giving up their extreme stances or political conflicts will flare up, and confrontation will be unavoidable. If that is the case, the military would have the same old excuse and we will find ourselves trapped in a vicious never-ending cycle.
Assistant news editor
Chairith Yonpiam is assistant news editor, Bangkok Post.