Draft charter veto leaves us all baffled

Draft charter veto leaves us all baffled

Viewed from whatever angle, it's baffling that the military-backed reform council voted down the draft charter which was prepared by drafters backed by the military leaders.

Does it boil down to inefficiency, a last-minute switch to Plan B or the possibility that the entire process of drafting the constitution was an extravagant diversion to provide a pretext for the military regime to stay in power?

A great deal of insight and analysis will try to explain why the junta decided to reject its own draft charter. For ordinary citizens, however, there are probably only two ways to look at the matter. One is with a sense of optimism, the other less so.

In the wake of the rejection, many people lay the blame on the Constitution Drafting Committee and the National Reform Council. Thanks to them, the country has wasted 18 months plus about 500 million baht on salaries and other expenses.

But if we look at this in an optimistic way, the financial losses and missed opportunity could be justified if it means we will no longer have to contend with this kind of "undemocratic constitution" in the future.

One theory that supports this idea is the military regime decided to make an abrupt U-turn and dump the draft after it was certain it would fail a public referendum.

Both the Democrat and the Pheu Thai parties were clear in their opposition to it. Together, the two parties command the loyalty of about 26 million people based on the 2011 election results. If they rallied their supporters, there was a high chance the draft would have failed in the referendum.

Such an outcome would not only be a loss of face for the military regime but campaigns against the draft charter could also rekindle political conflicts.

That is why it is considered more prudent for the military regime to cut its losses at an earlier stage and begin again with a more acceptable draft.

Among the most controversial elements in the failed draft charter was the introduction of a so-called crisis panel, consisting of 23 people. The panel can assume all powers from an elected government if it believes the country has suffered a crisis.

The constitutional design for such a super-body appears to be an attempt to bring Thailand under a "guided democracy" principle, in which the mandate of elected government can be pushed down under the supervision of military and traditional powers when necessary.

If the theory is true that the military leaders aborted this draft because they were certain such an undemocratic modification would not be accepted by voters, and the next draft might avoid this pitfall, then the waste of time and resources could be worth it.

But of course, ordinary citizens should not just hope for the best but prepare for the worst as we continue our journey along the military's ever more flexible "roadmap''.

A pessimistic reading of the rejection of the draft charter would suggest the military regime never intended to hold elections, definitely not in a year or two as outlined in Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha's infamous roadmap anyway.

The drafting of the charter was therefore perhaps just a ploy to lull people into believing the military regime is taking the necessary steps to restore democracy.

The voting down of the draft charter renews the military regime's hold on power. For this round, Gen Prayut and his cabinet have been assured of at least another one and a half years in administration.

The pessimistic scenario could get worse. The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) will pick who sits in the next drafting committee which will have to come up with a new draft charter in 180 days.

Unlike the first draft, the new one will be sent to a public referendum directly once it is finished. If it is not approved, the process starts over again. The spectre for this scenario would be if the military regime insists on keeping the military and traditional powers hanging over an elected government in the constitution.

If the same undemocratic design is maintained in the next draft, will ordinary citizens get caught in a dilemma where saying no to an undemocratic charter would mean saying yes to more time under the military regime? Will we get caught in an endless game of charter writing?

Such a battle of wills, if it is allowed to take place, will be ugly. The military leaders must weigh their options carefully when it comes to the second draft charter, as it realistically should be their last.

Atiya Achakulwisut is contributing editor, Bangkok Post.

Atiya Achakulwisut

Columnist for the Bangkok Post

Atiya Achakulwisut is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.

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