Charter rewrite arouses suspicions

Charter rewrite arouses suspicions

Experts question the Pheu Thai-led govt's true intentions

The charter amendment process is now in motion, but many are questioning if it will truly be about serving the public interest, or whether it is a strategy by the Pheu Thai-led government to cling to power.

The proposal to revise the military-sponsored 2017 Constitution, which was one of the ruling party's election pledges, is listed as a priority issue for the coalition government.

Deputy Prime Minister Phumtham Wechayachai, a Pheu Thai veteran, is tasked with leading a government-appointed panel to study designing a referendum on charter amendment.

The referendum is a thorny issue thanks to a 2021 Constitutional Court ruling that the public must approve any move to amend the entire charter. If a rewrite is approved, another referendum must be held to approve the content.

Mr Phumtham's panel recently approved a proposal to hold three referendums for charter amendment and decided that only one question will be asked in the first one.

The question will be whether or not voters agree with the proposal to amend the constitution, except for Chapters 1 and 2, which deal with general provisions and the King, respectively.

If the first referendum wins approval by the public, the government will seek to amend Section 256 of the current constitution to allow the formation of a new assembly, whose composition will be decided in a joint sitting of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The panel's decision will be forwarded to the cabinet this month or no later than the first quarter of this year.

Cosmetic change

Thanaporn Sriyakul, chairman of the Political Science Association of Kasetsart University, said that the proposal to rewrite the charter is more about appearance than it is about making any real, substantive changes.

Thanaporn Sriyakul

While the proposed changes may add more rights on paper, they may not be fully realised in practice because of existing power structures. In essence, things are run by ministerial and departmental regulations.

The much-demanded decentralisation of power is unlikely to materialise, he said, citing the government's proposal to revive the idea of turning governors into chief executive officers (CEO) of their respective provinces.

He said the "CEO-governor" model, which is similar to that proposed in 2003 during the tenure of the now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party, is the opposite of decentralisation.

Rather than reducing the rights of political office holders, the ruling party is likely to use the charter amendment to consolidate its power, he said, citing the infamous "family Senate" -- an example of how the 1997 charter was exploited in a power grab.

The "family Senate" refers to the Senate where spouses and family members of MPs ran for the Upper House after senators were directly elected, not appointed.

"The lifetime political ban is likely to remain in place because it can be used against its political rivals. I dare say that the justice system won't be touched, and the party would rather explore ways of how it can be used to serve its political interests," he said.

However, the remaining policies of the coup-makers, such as the 20-year national strategy and the Senate's authority in following up national reforms and impeaching members of public independent agencies, will be targeted, he said.

He ruled out the possibility that major bureaucratic reforms would be carried out, saying the ruling party needs to keep things the way they are for its political goals.

There will not be significant military reforms, not even the scrapping of conscription, but there may be some superficial changes, like giving more rights to soldiers in the charter, according to the analyst.

"Don't expect the charter amendment to bring about progressive changes. They may even re-introduce the use of the one-ballot system to quash the Move Forward Party," he said.

A slow and drawn-out process

The public usually expects elections soon after a charter amendment is complete, so Mr Thanaporn predicted that the rewrite process will take as long as it needs and the public will have to wait until the end of the government's tenure to see an outcome.

Olarn Thinbangtieo

In other words, the charter rewrite will be used to guarantee that the government will complete its four-year term.

No one is going to rush a process that may lead to a changing of the guard, he noted.

The analyst said he could not see a change in the political landscape because of a lack of choices.

The prime ministerial candidates from the conservative camp are not welcomed, while the MFP leader has been rejected.

"What we're witnessing is a tactic to keep the existing power structure going for four years," he said.

Mr Thanaporn supports the direct election of the charter writing assembly. Even legal specialists should come from elections, not by invitation or by a quota, he said.

When charter writers are fully elected, there should be no "restrictions" about which parts of the charter should not be revised, he said, stressing the drafters should be free to do their work.

Olarn Thinbangtieo, a political science lecturer at Burapha University, said the charter rewrite process will likely face hiccups given that there has been no conclusive result after 100 days of work.

Disagreements among political parties are rife, especially when the main opposition MFP stands firm in thinking that the entire charter, including Chapters 1 and 2, should be up for change.

"The referendum panel is established as a shield... to do a comprehensive study. At the end of the day, the process may be futile," he said.

According to Mr Olarn, tension between the government and the main opposition party is anticipated because the latter will push for a wholesale rewrite, with Chapters 1 and 2 included.

The election systems of MPs and senators, their roles and powers and the public independent agencies like the Election Commission will be among the first to be tweaked in the charter amendment.

Also expected to take centre stage are public scrutiny of the state's use of power, decentralisation of power and freedom of expression, he said.

However, bureaucratic reforms are likely to be on the table because the government relies on technocrats and the military, he noted.

Mr Olarn said the charter rewrite is a complex and contentious process considering the referendum requirement and the setting up of a charter drafting assembly.

The government and the opposition must be on the same page and reach a common understanding for the charter amendment process to succeed, or it is likely to stall, he said.

"I think the process will last until nearly the end of the government's term. Whether the draft will be complete is up in the air," he said.

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