Thai charter court deserves scrutiny
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Thai charter court deserves scrutiny


Amid the volatility and confusion during the interim since the May 14 election, Thailand's Constitutional Court has further thickened the plot by accepting a petition to rule on whether a parliamentary vote using the meeting rules to deny the renomination of Move Forward Party leader Pita Limjaroenrat's premiership was unconstitutional.

The court's latest move has delayed the process of forming a government. By doing so time and again -- it is seen to be politicised. Therefore, the charter court, too, deserves greater public scrutiny.

Owing partly to the court's rulings, the longer Thailand is stuck in its post-election limbo, the more we see that the Thai people merely get to participate in but do not determine their collective future. Voter results seemingly count for less and less as Move Forward as the largest-winning party, and Mr Pita as its leader and sole candidate for prime minister have been systematically stymied and denied the parliament speakership, the premiership, and a partnership in the coalition government. That Move Forward has been effectively relegated to the opposition is attributable to decisions made by unelected agencies, particularly the Election Commission (EC) and Constitutional Court, and attendant saboteurs who filed charges to get the ball rolling.

Another discernible trend since the poll is the divide-and-rule tactics of these agencies that were appointed during the coup era in 2014-2019. Once Move Forward was hobbled by charges and pressed by the court, the eight-party coalition government-in-waiting that included Pheu Thai as the second-biggest poll winner became untenable. Although some might say Pheu Thai was intent on betraying Move Forward anyway, the breakup became more plausible once Move Forward had no chance of forming or even being in government in view of the judicial moves against its prospects.

While the squabbling and bickering among political parties and elected politicians take place like a daily television drama, fuelled by intensifying social media proliferation, the established centres of power from the military, the judiciary and sundry agencies like the election and anti-corruption commissions appear organised, stable, and calm. This commotion and seeming chaos among political parties and politicians, in contrast to the appointed agencies and established centres of power, has been used to discredit and weaken democratic institutions for decades. The establishment's belief has long been that politicians are bad and untrustworthy, whereas "good" and appointed officials and rulers conversely gain the moral high ground.

Among these appointed agencies and officials, the Constitutional Court is second to none. Regardless of the election results, the Constitutional Court has set political directions by dissolving two big parties that won landslide poll victories, namely Thai Rak Thai in 2007 and Palang Prachachon (People's Power) in 2008.

The same bench also disbanded the Pheu Thai-affiliated Thai Raksa Chart party just before the March 2019 poll and Future Forward, Move Forward's predecessor, in February 2020. In a familiar fashion, the Constitutional Court now has outstanding charges to adjudicate Move Forward's fate, including allegations of treason for the party's campaign pledge to amend the lese majeste law, or Section 112 of the criminal code.

The Constitutional Court judges from diverse professional backgrounds, like election and anti-corruption commissioners, are supposed to be the neutral referees of Thai politics and electoral processes to ensure transparency and accountability of the political system and the stability and effectiveness of government. Referees are supposed to be impartial upholders of rules for fair play.

Accordingly, the charter court's acceptance of the Ombudsman's petition to reconsider Mr Pita's premiership vote appears suspect. When the Move Forward leader did not receive sufficient support from the military-appointed senate on the first try on July 13, his name came up for another attempt six days later. Parliamentary regulation number 41 indicates that the same motion cannot be made, but the constitution has an open-ended clause on the frequency of premiership nominations. The president of parliament put the renomination allowance up for a vote among the appointed senators and elected representatives, and it was unsurprisingly shot down. Move Forward queried the Ombudsman that the constitution, as the supreme law of the land, should be above a parliamentary regulation.

The Constitutional Court would have been consistent had it simply denied the Ombudsman's renomination query and moved ahead with the third premiership vote on a new candidate today, when Pheu Thai is expected to lead an alternative line-up of parties with Srettha Thavisin as its lead PM candidate to be voted on. But the nine-member bench has kicked the can down the road until Aug 16.

Such a delay is inconsistent and in contrast to the court's earlier swift moves against Mr Pita and Move Forward. For example, the Constitutional Court requested that the Office of the Attorney General take action on a Section 112 charge involving Mr Pita and Move Forward. When it got the answer it wanted, the court announced on July 12 that it has accepted this 112 case for adjudication, just one day before Mr Pita's first PM vote attempt. Similarly, when the EC forwarded Mr Pita's obscure share ownership charge to the court, the judges duly suspended Mr Pita on the same day of his second premiership bid on July 19.

But now, the same court is taking its time. It so happens that the longer the outgoing government of Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha remains in its caretaker capacity, the more purview it will have over key appointments and promotions of the bureaucracy, police, and military. The weeks from August-September are crucial for promotions and appointments before the new fiscal year starts on Oct 1.

Yet the delay gives way to more political manoeuvres behind the scenes. Mr Srettha, Pheu Thai's top candidate for the premiership, is being publicly grilled with an apparent character assassination on accusations of tax invasion and investment irregularities.

Whatever the final outcome, it can be said that we cannot ignore the Constitutional Court because it carries the force of law that can affect politics and democracy.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

Senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University

A professor and senior fellow of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, he earned a PhD from the London School of Economics with a top dissertation prize in 2002. Recognised for excellence in opinion writing from Society of Publishers in Asia, his views and articles have been published widely by local and international media.

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