Charter rewrite may proceed with two referenda

Charter rewrite may proceed with two referenda

Fate of existing bill remains uncertain

(Bangkok Post file photo)
(Bangkok Post file photo)

Parliament has the duty and authority to write a new constitution, but two referenda must be held — first to ask whether people want a new charter and second to approve the finished draft, according to the Constitutional Court.

The one-paragraph ruling released on Thursday afternoon put an end to a dispute between the House and the Senate on whether they can start from scratch or are allowed to amend only by section.

It remains unclear at this stage whether lawmakers can proceed with the third and final reading of a bill on how to write a new charter or whether the process has to be reset by asking people in a referendum first whether they want a rewrite of the constitution.

In Thursday’s ruling, the court affirms that the constituent power belongs to the people, hence the need to hold the referenda. 

Opinions split in the House and the Senate last month. Several senators questioned whether Parliament could write a new constitution as was the intention of most MPs, including those from the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), the core coalition party.

While most MPs agreed the chapter on the King is off limits, senators argued the sections involving his prerogative were not limited to that chapter, and they wanted no changes made to them as well. Since there are dozens of sections that mention the King, the rewrite of a new charter may not be possible. 

On Feb 9, Paiboon Nititawan, PPRP party-list MP, and senator Somchai Sawangkan submitted a motion for lawmakers to ask the court for the ruling.

Both houses voted 366-316 in favour, with 15 abstentions. Of the votes in favour, 230 were overwhelmingly from senators, who number 250, and 136 were from PPRP MPs and microparties.

Most MPs of other large coalition parties — Democrat and Bhumjaithai — voted against the motion.

On Feb 18, the court met to accept the petition and asked four people for their opinions on the case. They were Meechai Ruchupan, the lead writer of the 2017 charter, Borwornsak Uwanno, the lead writer of the first draft which had been scrapped by the military-appointed National Legislative Assembly (NLA) earlier, Somkid Lertpaitoon and Udom Rat-amarit, both of whom were members of the Meechai constitution-drafting team.

Lawmakers scheduled next Wednesday and Thursday to vote on the bill on how to rewrite the new charter. The bill was reconciled from the versions submitted by coalition and opposition parties.

Under it, a constitution drafting assembly will be set up. Its 200 members will be elected by people with provinces as constituencies. And chapter 1 and 2 on general provisions and the King, respectively, may not be changed.

The main obstacle is predicted to be the required number of votes from senators appointed by Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha.

For the bill to pass, a simple majority of both houses (369 of 737 as of Feb 25 data) is not enough.

The 2017 constitution requires the majority votes must include at least one-third of senators (84 of 250) and 20% of the votes of parties whose MPs are not cabinet ministers, the House speaker or his deputy (47 of 233). 

It will also be put to the first referendum as stipulated by the Constitutional Court.

The ruling on Thursday was viewed by some as a stalling tactic.

"Even though the court allows the rewrite, this is going to be a long, drawn-out process that leads nowhere," Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University’s Center of Asean Community Studies in northern Thailand, told Reuters.

"The constitutional drafting assembly will likely be dominated by arch-conservatives, and the lower house and the Senate are likely to create as many obstacles as possible to slow down any real changes," he said.

Since the 2014 military coup, Gen Prayut has been prime minister for more than six years through the appointments of the NLA (2014-19) and elected parliamentarians (2019-now).

He will have completed his first four-year term as prime minister from an election in 2023 and will likely continue to lead the country for another term through 2027, given the support of the senators, unless the constitution is amended or rewritten, or the senators change their minds.

If he completes two four-year terms, he will have been the longest-serving prime minister Thailand has ever had, with a record of 13 years, beating Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, who served 9½ years until 1957.  

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