New Constitution Will End Thai Democracy

The portions of Thailand’s new written constitution that are emerging on the Internet in English present a charter designed to make sure that any election, should there be one anytime soon, will be strictly controlled by the military and the royalty in Bangkok, and that the franchise will effectively be denied to many voters.

What it seems to mean, as widely expected, is that Thailand’s latest experiment with democracy is over, with pre-ordained debate that began Monday on the new document in the junta's National Council for Peace and Order. Liberalization began in 1997 with a reform constitution that led to the elevation in 2001 of billionaire telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra to the premiership and ended with the coup that deposed his sister Yingluck as prime minister last May. It remains to be seen how permanent that is.

Giles Ji Ungpakorn, a radical socialist opponent of the junta who is in exile in the UK, called the new document “possibly the worst constitution that has ever been drafted in Thailand. It should be opposed.”

Thaksin’s ascendancy in 2001 resulted in the implementation of a wide range of social policies including health care, low-cost loans and community enterprise incubators to benefit the rural poor and the classless in the urban areas that made him wildly popular – while he also grew increasingly autocratic and his administration was regarded as increasingly corrupt. Those social policies ensured his reelection until he was ousted in a 2006 coup and eventually was forced to flee the country ahead of corruption charges. Nonetheless, surrogate governments enabled him to run the country from exile.

While the new charter does mandate healthcare and education reforms, among other things, it is written to guarantee that few if any Thaksin allies will ever again take part in the political process. [The constitution, not available when this article was written, has since been translated and can be found here:] Those who have been arrested or banned for political activity will be barred for life from politics under Article 11. Almost all of those arrested in the coup and subsequent crackdown in 2014 were members of the Pheu Thai Party or allied with it or previous Thaksin-led parties.

“From the time of the coup, I maintained that this coup would be different from previous ones," a western businessman told Asia Sentinel "Prayuth would be his own man, and he is a tough son of a bitch. It was also clear to me that he would ensure that Thai politics would henceforth be a tightly controlled game, with a democratic façade masking semi-authoritarian rule, and Prayuth would one way or another be part of the game for some time to come. He does not intend to let go of power until well after the [royal] succession. He feels that it is his mission to preserve order and stability in the nation as it passes through the succession years.”

The new document, consisting of 50,000 words and 315 sections, is scheduled to be voted on and ratified in September by the military-dominated legislature put in place by Prayuth, replacing the charter that was voided last May. While there was some talk of a public referendum, that is extremely unlikely since Thaksin’s rural forces in the north and the east of the country would probably vote it down. It will be the 20th charter to be put in place since 1932.

In addition to putting Thaksin’s people back in a rural box, the charter is designed to strangle the kind of political party machine that Thaksin built. Even Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrat Party premier who tacitly backed the coup is complaining that the new constitution would set the country’s political system back 30 years.

Basically, as Abhisit said, the new constitution represents a return to the semi-democracy that dominated the country under Prem Tinsulanonda, the former army chief who took over in 1980 and ruled as prime minister through 1988 before becoming the head of the king’s privy council, where he remains. It appears designed to legitimize the military’s intervention in politics and indemnifies them from prosecution should a civilian government somehow come to power. As it has since the country’s first coup in 1932, either overtly or covertly, the military will dominate the political process.

Among other things, it allows for a non-elected member of parliament to become prime minister, a step back from the so-called People’s Constitution of 1997, which required an elected MP as prime minister. It was one of the major demands made by democratic movements in the 1980s and 1990s, and was aimed at preventing military interference in politics. The inclusion of this requirement in the 1997 constitution was considered a major advance in Thailand’s democratization.

The appointive Senate, dominated by the military, is to be granted more influence, giving them power to propose legislature and to scrutinize the profiles of nominated cabinet ministers before the prime minister submits the list for royal approval as well as vetting the profiles of the heads of all government organizations and publish the details.

It was an attempt to convert the Senate to an electoral body that was one of the factors bringing down Yingluck’s government last year.

The constitution will increase the number of senators to 200, half of which will be appointed and the rest “indirectly elected,” which means in effect that they are appointed. The first group will be comprised of various former leaders. The first are the 12 living ex-prime ministers, although Thaksin, in exile in Dubai, will not be one of them. Others are a small number of former House Speakers who are not members of a political party, and former court presidents.

Members of the second group will be former high-ranking government officials. The third will involve chairpersons and representatives of certified professional organizations, such as the Thai Chamber of Commerce and the Medical Council of Thailand. The civil sector, including agricultural cooperatives, labor unions and people’s organizations will form the fourth group.

A majority of the appointed senators will most likely represent the old power centers.

Candidates will first be “selected or screened” by unelected professional councils called a “National Morals Forum” with powers to weed out what the government deems to be unsuitable politicians. Considering that most existing professional councils in Thailand are allied with the Bangkok-based middle class and aligned with the conservative powers, this fifth group will in no way be able to claim that they represent broad-based participatory politics. In essence, the Senate will be dominated by the current power structure, a supportive mechanism for a royalist government and at the same time a destabilizing force against a popular-based government.

While supporters of the new draft document say it could allow for elections next year, and bring about the end of military rule, others question whether even a constitution this iron-clad will be enough to overcome the enmity of the millions of northern and rural voters who have been disenfranchised through the coup.