The challenges of charter change

The challenges of charter change

ABOUT POLITICS: Constitutional reform proves tough as calls for a less convoluted process by the MFP are met with cynicism v Latest poll puts suitability for Prayut as PM below 'nobody', and many blame the appointment of Thamanat as party secretary-general

Thamanat: Considered a political fixer
Thamanat: Considered a political fixer

The charter amendment bid has moved into a phase where it has been decided what areas of the supreme law of the land will be chiselled away at or completely chopped off.

The charter amendment bid has moved into a phase where it has been decided what areas of the supreme law of the land will be chiselled away at or completely chopped off.

Most parties initially came up with their own versions of the amendment bill that spelt out what sections of the constitution they thought were in need of reform.

The opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) has been one of the most vocal parties in parliament in demanding sweeping changes to the charter. In fact, it spouted amendment proposals so controversial that critics agreed they would never see the light of day during the scrutiny stage in parliament.

Opponents have harboured suspicions over Move Forward's motives in calling or not calling for certain sections of the constitution to be changed as they could amount to a self-serving political ploy intended to give the party maximum advantage in a future poll.

Among the bitterly contentious amendment items suggested by the party is a rewrite of Chapters 1 and 2, traditionally off-limits to change in the country's constitutional history.

Chapter 1 contains sections defining Thailand as a single, indivisible kingdom with a democratic regime and the King as head of state. Chapter 2 contains sections that deal with royal prerogatives.

Both chapters constitute the backbone of the constitution and the kernel of sovereignty.

The MFP has adopted the stance of its predecessor, the Future Forward Party which was dissolved in February last year by the Constitutional Court over the illegal 191.2-million-baht loan its leader Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit gave it.

The MFP has also been adamant in its call for the Senate to be stripped of its power to co-elect a prime minister in a joint sitting. It's a power the opposition has slammed as the legacy of the now-defunct coup engineer, the National Council for Peace and Order, and which had helped cement Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister.

While the MFP has repeatedly cited a number of elements in the charter for change, political experts noted it recently brought up a less familiar matter, something it wanted to retain, which raised an eyebrow or two.

MFP secretary-general Chaithawat Tulathon dwelled at length recently on the mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral system which was adopted by the current constitution.

The highly convoluted election method, which was used for the first time in the March 2019 general election, requires one ballot to be cast instead of two as was the norm in previous polls.

Ballots cast for constituency candidates are also used to calculate party-list seats.

The single ballot method has been slammed for depriving people of a choice. With two ballots, they could pick a candidate MP from one party and vote for a different party. The party ballots end up being tallied which determines what parties get how many list MPs.

Mr Chaithawat said while his party recognised the merit of two ballots, it wants list seats to be calculated using the MMP method.

Chaithawat: Calls for simpler balloting

That suggestion, however, has been labelled a self-serving attempt to retain the MFP's political leverage.

In the 2019 election, the Future Forward Party (FFP) won 30 constituency seats and garnered 50 party-list MPs. It was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the MMP calculation.

The MFP now carries the political torch of the FFP after taking in most of its MPs after its disbandment in February last year, which is why it remains half-hearted about abolishing the system, said the critics who added the MFP's call for the MMP calculation to be kept intact may be purely tactical.

According to the critics, another reason the FFP bagged many votes was because it reaped the windfall from the demise of the Thai Raksa Chart (TRC) Party which came shortly before the election.

The TRC was dissolved by the Constitutional Court for nominating Princess Ubolratana, the elder sister of His Majesty the King, as its prime ministerial candidate.

The TRC was run by several former members of the Pheu Thai Party and came across as a close Pheu Thai ally out to capture a different segment of voters.

After the TRC's dissolution, analysts believed a sizeable number of its younger voters switched to the FFP.

Meanwhile, the MFP's stance on charter amendments came with a warning from prominent academics that the charter amendment bid being pursued by political parties barely touched the principle of what should be improved in the constitution.

One of them described it as cosmetic improvements to deceive the people.

A slap in the face for the PPRP

An approval rating given to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha in an opinion poll last Sunday is being seen by several political observers as a slap in the face for the ruling Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP), which announced it would back Gen Prayut to stay on for another term if it won the next election.

In the latest quarterly poll of the most popular candidates for prime minister carried out by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida Poll), "nobody" was by far the most suitable choice to lead the country.

Asked whom would they support to be prime minister amid the current political situation, 37.65% of the respondents said nobody was suitable for the post. Gen Prayut came in a distant second with 19.32% of poll participants saying they wanted him to serve out his current term.

Gen Prayut's public support rating was down by nine percentage points compared with the 28% approval rating he received in the first quarterly poll.

It could be just a coincidental event, but the sharp decrease was registered right after the ruling PPRP named controversial Deputy Agriculture Minister Thamanat Prompow as its new secretary-general, replacing Anucha Nakasai of the Sam Mitr faction.

Thamanat: Considered a political fixer

Capt Thamanat's rise is widely seen as part of the PPRP's move to re-organise the party across the country in an effort to win the next general election and return Gen Prayut to the prime ministerial post for a third consecutive term if one includes his unelected five-year post-coup stint.

Despite being a highly controversial figure due to his past criminal record in Australia, Capt Thamanat is considered a political fixer whose skills are reportedly valued by PPRP leader Prawit Wongsuwon who was also re-elected as the party leader in a June 18 general assembly in the northeastern province of Khon Kaen.

Capt Thamanat has been instrumental in striking political deals with several opposition MPs and giving the government the upper hand in crucial votes in parliament and in the PPRP's recent by-election win in the South, to the dismay of the coalition partner Democrat Party which has traditionally dominated the region's political scene.

The new PPRP secretary-general was not being coy when asked about the party's prime ministerial candidate in the next election contest. Under the current political situation, Capt Thamanat said he believed no one was more suited for the post than Gen Prayut.

"When we started out [as a party], we backed Gen Prayut as the premier and we pledged our support," he was quoted as saying when asked if the PPRP would nominate Gen Prayut as premier again in parliament after the next poll.

He also hoped that the party would garner at least 200 House seats in the next election, an increase from 121 seats in 2019.

However, several political observers believe that Capt Thamanat's goal is rather ambitious given Gen Prayut's declining popularity rating which could slide further following the government's handling of the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The government's policy to reopen the country's tourism and businesses within 120 days is also being seen as counterintuitive amid high Covid-19 infection rates, the heavy prevalence of the Delta variant in the country and the sluggish vaccine rollout due to delays in delivery.

With the current spike in Covid-19 infections and the easing of restrictions, Gen Prayut, who heads the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA), should brace himself for a massive loss in public support, according to political observers.

The government's attempts to tackle the economic woes brought on by the public health crisis are far from satisfactory and it will have a much harder time in bringing the country out of the pandemic's economic devastation, they said.

A highly placed source in the PPRP agreed with the observation, pointing out that the party should not get carried away with Gen Prawit and Capt Thamanat's growing political clout.

At the end of the day, it is the popularity of the party's prime ministerial candidate, which in this case is Gen Prayut, that will be key to the PPRP's success in the election contest.

According to the source, the coalition government is not as united as it seems and the Democrat Party looks poised to pull out from the bloc at any moment. Democrat leader Jurin Laksanawisit is under constant pressure from party members to withdraw before its public support shrinks further.

And even though Bhumjaithai, the second-largest coalition party, maintains its role as a trusted ally of the PPRP, it is navigating the waters shrewdly and it is biding its time, according to the PPRP source.

"Don't forget that the next election may take place under the new electoral rules and the PPRP may not be able to 'force' other medium-sized parties to form a coalition," said the PPRP source.

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