News analysis

Waiting game for both sides over Thailand's charter

Govt and opposition dig in their heels on new Constitution despite risk of election delay

There were few surprises in version 2.0 of Thailand's draft Constitution released recently. Nor did many people bat an eyelid when charter drafters indicated that any delay in drawing up accompanying laws may push the election back to 2018 - four years after the coup.

But there is something bigger at stake than an election date. Both the military-dominated, elite-backed ruling establishment and the anti-coup sections of Thai society have made this clear and appear to be willing to wait for what they want.

This is the second draft Constitution in nearly two years, with the process started in late 2014 after the kingdom's generals in May that year threw out the Puea Thai party-run government. They now rule under an interim Constitution that grants the military government absolute power whenever it deems appropriate.

The first draft Constitution proposed last year was heavily criticised for diluting the power of the electorate vis-a-vis that of the elite. It did not survive a vote by a military-appointed reform council, which restarted the whole process under a new team of drafters.

Yet the broad themes of the second draft are similar, say critics. Unlike in the pre-coup Constitution, there will no longer be any directly elected senators. They will instead be selected from among nominees from various groups. For the Lower House, votes cast by supporters of losing candidates will be used to tally the distribution of some seats in order to prevent a "winner takes all" scenario.

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha arriving for a Cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok this week. While analysts say Thailand's generals are in no hurry to hand over power, the lower-than-expected economic growth of about 2.8 per c
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha arriving for a Cabinet meeting at Government House in Bangkok this week. While analysts say Thailand's generals are in no hurry to hand over power, the lower-than-expected economic growth of about 2.8 per cent last year has put them under scrutiny. PHOTO: REUTERS

NO PARTISANSHIP

We do not start off trying to create any type of political environment... We hope to prevent a recurrence of… regional politics with one party exclusively governing or benefiting or ruling one particular part of  Thailand.

DRAFTING COMMITTEE SPOKESMAN NORACHIT SINHASENI

The obvious loser from this set-up is Puea Thai, which won a popular mandate in 2011 and would have triumphed again in the Feb 2, 2014, poll had that not been sabotaged by anti-government demonstrators.

Puea Thai or its previous incarnations, backed by the rural vote in the populous north-east and north of the country, have won every general election over the past decade.

The set-up will create "a weak government, a weak coalition", says Mr Choosak Sirinin, the head of Puea Thai's legal team. This will pave the way for intervention by non-elected groups, including the military.

Drafting committee spokesman Norachit Sinhaseni waves off any notions of partisanship.

"We do not start off trying to create any type of political environment," he tells The Straits Times. Rather, the committee is trying to eradicate corruption and "prevent a dictatorship of the majority".

He added: "We hope to prevent a recurrence of… regional politics with one party exclusively governing or benefiting or ruling one particular part of Thailand."

It is unclear how that system will play out in Bangkok and the south, where votes have traditionally gone to the Democrat Party. But members of the Puea Thai-allied "red shirt" movement have made their opposition clear.

"We don't care how long it would take to get to the election," said Mr Jatuporn Prompan, a key leader of the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, in a video uploaded to YouTube on Monday. "We don't want a fake democracy or dictatorship disguised as democracy."

The draft is expected to be put to a referendum after some possible tweaks based on feedback. If it is thrown out again, Mr Norachit's team will be dissolved, putting the kingdom through what could be an endless loop of charter redrafts.

That is, until opposition to military rule coalesces into something that tight surveillance and pre-emptive policing cannot hold back.

"At that time, everything will come to an end (for this junta)," predicts Mr Choosak.

While analysts say Thailand's generals are in no hurry to hand over power, the lower-than-expected economic growth of about 2.8 per cent last year has put them under scrutiny. Economists are banking on government stimulus plans to improve sentiments in the weak export environment.

Military rule has also put some things in limbo. One diplomat told The Straits Times recently that it was better to hold off discussion on a sensitive bilateral issue because there was no guarantee a future elected government would honour whatever deal was reached.

Hence, while both the government and the opposition appear to have dug in their heels, the clock appears to be ticking faster for the ruling establishment.

Mr Norachit warns that a second rejection of the draft charter may just prompt the government to short-circuit the whole process.

"I don't think there would be another futile exercise in forming another committee to draft it," he says.  "More likely than not, it would be Cabinet, or some people in the Cabinet will be asked to formulate a Constitution and there you would have even a smaller minority thinking for the whole country…

"And there, what say would people have?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline 'Waiting game for both sides over Thailand's charter'. Print Edition | Subscribe