The government's plan to complete the charter amendment process in four years is unlikely to be good enough for the pro-democracy alliance that has launched a campaign for wholesale charter change, according to political observers.
The government’s plan to complete the constitutional amendment process in four years is unlikely to be good enough for the pro-democracy alliance that has launched a campaign for wholesale change, according to political observers.
Both the main opposition Move Forward Party (MFP) and the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) group wasted no time in pursuing charter revision, advocating a directly elected body with full authority and consideration over the entire constitution.
When the new House of Representatives convened, Move Forward submitted a motion calling on the government to hold a referendum to ask the public if a new constitution should be drawn up by a charter-drafting assembly of elected representatives to replace the current charter.
The motion in question is similar in nature to the one backed by 323 MPs but shot down by the Senate before the House was dissolved in March. It is 33rd on the current legislative agenda.
Move Forward tried to move the motion for House consideration up but the bid was thwarted. The party is pinning its hopes on the government to prioritise the proposed referendum.
Meanwhile, iLaw made its move by submitting a proposal to the ruling Pheu Thai Party. Supported by more than 200,000 eligible voters, the proposal also demands a referendum on the setting up of a directly elected body to rewrite the 2017 Constitution.
Based on a Constitutional Court ruling in March 2021, a referendum is a must before an attempt to create an entirely new charter, and parliament has the power to draw up a new constitution.
If people decide they want a new constitution and a draft of a new one is then completed, another referendum must be held for people to endorse it.
To make good on the ruling party’s promise to revise the charter, the government took the first step by forming a referendum study panel.
The appointment of the panel headed by Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai, who is also a Pheu Thai stalwart, was approved by the cabinet at its first meeting on Sept 13.
However, setting up a referendum study panel, which can take months to complete, falls short of the pro-democracy camp’s expectations.
Pheu Thai stands accused of paying lip service to its own policy because the Phumtham panel is being given no timeframe or guidelines for its work. Critics were particularly frustrated by the lingering uncertainty as to whether a charter drafting assembly will be formed at all.
It is widely believed that Pheu Thai’s priority is not charter amendment but rather the economy, which resonates with a much broader segment of society. The charter issue will only trigger a new round of political conflict and possible instability that the ruling party cannot afford, according to analysts.
Phichai Ratnatilaka Na Bhuket, from the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), agreed that Pheu Thai is likely to dedicate its resources to reviving the economy to appease the public.
The nature of the referendum study panel indicates that the party does not want wholesale charter changes, he said.
“This shows it doesn’t want a new charter written. The proposed charter writing assembly is now in doubt. We’re not hearing anything about the assembly being directly elected lately,” said Mr Phichai.
In his view, wholesale charter changes would be highly controversial because chapters 1 and 2 would be subject to revision and the conservative camp would be up in arms if these two principal chapters are meddled with.
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 pertaining to the royal prerogatives.
Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin and Mr Phumtham insisted that chapters 1 and 2 would be left untouched.
But Mr Phichit believes the ruling party cannot drag its feet for long and will be under intense pressure from Move Forward and iLaw to declare a clear stance.
“I think iLaw will propose its own charter amendment to parliament and Pheu Thai will have to act,” he said.
“A referendum draft law involving charter amendment will be presented in the next parliament session which is around the end of this year, or early next year.”
Staff give flowers to Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha during an emotional farewell to the outgoing prime minister at Government House on Aug 31. (Photo: Thai Khu Fah Facebook)
The unity show must go on
Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha left the political stage on what observers feel was a planned high note, leaving some wondering if he’ll be back for an encore.
The man who staged the 2014 coup might not have been the most popular prime minister while in office. However, when the curtain came down on his nine years as premier, an emotional farewell was witnessed live on social media platforms, marking the end of an era.
Some observers believe that how a prime minister leaves office can chart the course that could lead them back to it in the future.
Social media was abuzz with videos of Gen Prayut exiting Government House for the last time as the prime ministerial baton was being passed to his successor, Srettha Thavisin.
On his last day as prime minister, Gen Prayut was swamped by Government House officials and staff who jostled for positions to give him roses.
In the background was live music played by an ensemble. Songs the crowd heard were those composed for the Prayut administration, which were later to become the government’s hallmark songs.
As Gen Prayut slipped into his private Mercedes sedan, which he had switched to after returning the official limousine to Government House, and the car slowly pulled away, the noise grew louder from officials and staff who lined both sides of the driveway chanting his name. Some were fighting back tears.
The observers said it would take a great deal of convincing to arrive at the conclusion that the smooth transition of power was unplanned. Signs had pointed to the transition having been the product of a move that would ultimately be tactically advantageous to Gen Prayut.
The observers explained that with the Pheu Thai-led government having taken over from the Prayut administration, the nightmare scenario dreaded by conservatives would not materialise. The Move Forward Party and the policies it represents, especially the amendment of the lese-majeste law, had been safely dispatched to the opposition benches.
Critics had heaped scorn on Move Forward’s “amateurism” in managing its political affairs, saying the prospect of the largest party occupying the seat of power was less than promising.
It transpired that Pheu Thai realised its goal of elevating itself to become the ruling party after a large number of senators rallied behind Srettha Thavisin’s bid for prime minister.
The majority of the senators who voted for Mr Srettha are close to Gen Prayut. Without them, Mr Srettha’s bid for office would have fallen way short.
If that had happened, a fresh vote would have had to be called. Next in line to be nominated as prime minister would have been Anutin Charnvirakul, the leader of Bhumjaithai, the third largest party, or Gen Prawit Wongsuwon, who leads Palang Pracharath, the previous ruling party.
The observers said it therefore came as no surprise that Mr Srettha lost no time in paying a courtesy call on Gen Prayut after winning the prime ministerial election.
The Srettha government has also admitted to its fold the 36-MP United Thai Nation (UTN) Party, in which Gen Prayut had been and still is an imposing patriarchal figure, despite having parted ways with the party.
The observers said some of Gen Prayut’s political legacy will live on in the new government through the UTN which has been allocated two top-tier cabinet portfolios — the Energy and Industry ministries — despite being a small party.
The way Gen Prayut departed office on a positive note, according to a source, may help many people remember him more fondly.
Also, with Pheu Thai in charge of the government and the “gratitude” it is thought to harbour towards Gen Prayut for Mr Srettha’s victory, the old soldier is believed to be on good speaking terms with the new government.
That might give peace of mind for Gen Prayut who may feel assured that the government will have no “score” to settle or bone to pick with him.
If Gen Prayut can manage to preserve a relatively unblemished record in the eyes of the people, there may come another time of political impasse and a leadership crisis where he might be considered for a prime ministerial comeback.
In a farewell remark he wrote on his Facebook page, Gen Prayut said: “The country’s journey in the past nine years hasn’t been smooth or easy, with disputes raging elsewhere in the world which affected energy prices, the cost of living and inflation.
“However, we must unite and get through it,” he added.