New charter is a big maze of puzzles of walls and paths: The Nation columnist

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives at a weekly cabinet meeting in Bangkok, on Feb 2, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Suthichai Yoon

The Nation/Asia News Network

Officially, the draft of the 270-article new charter is supposed to help "clean up politics". Anyone with any trace of corrupt practice would be barred from entering the electoral race. The drafting commission members also would like the public to believe that it's a "constitution for reform" - so much so that one particular provision stipulates that education and police reform must be done in one year after the promulgation of the highest law of the land. How that is even remotely possible must be one of the great mysteries of modern-day politics. But very few people would take those clauses seriously. Most observers were waiting to read the "provisional clause", which will in fact determine how "democratic" this piece of document is. If you had been casting doubts on the work of the Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) headed by Meechai Ruchupan from the outset, the details of the provisional clause would send chills down your spine. If you were trying to be "fair-minded" about the drafting process, you could be taken aback by the "audacity" of the charter writers to prove the critics right by retaining most of the absolute authority for the powers-that-be.

Article 257 will turn out to be the most controversial. It says the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) will remain in power until a new Cabinet is formed after the next election - with all the powers stipulated in the current provisional constitution. That means General Prayut Chan-o-Cha in his capacity as prime minister and NCPO chairman will continue to wield the all-embracing power under Article 44 of the provisional charter. Then, there is the big question of when the new Cabinet will assume office.

General Prayut may have publicly said the next election will be held in July, in 2017, regardless of whether the charter draft gets approved in the referendum or not. But if you read the fine print of the new charter draft that was made public last Friday, that may not be the case at all. One interpretation has it that if you follow the text closely the election could be delayed until 2018 - or even later. Articles 259 and 260 in the draft deal with the process of drawing up 10 organic laws related to holding elections. The draft stipulates that elections of MPs and senators will be held within 150 days, or five months, after the 10 organic laws are put into effect.

How long would the drafting of these 10 organic laws take? These two sections say that eight months is the deadline - and two more months for deliberation by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA). If one follows these guidelines, then the election could be held in October or November of 2017. That's about three to six months later than the timeline in the NCPO's original road map. But wait. Hidden somewhere in the two sections is the very tricky stipulation that if the CDC, for whatever reason, fails to complete the 10 organic laws in eight months, the CDC would be scrapped and the NCPO will set up a new CDC to continue with the task until it's completed. And what's the timeline given to the new CDC to finish that job? For some very mysterious reason, there is no mention in the draft at all. Is that a deliberate attempt to enable the military to delay the election indefinitely?

CDC chief Meechai denied there was anything malicious about it. The clause was aimed to put pressure on the CDC to make sure they complete the organic laws on time. If a new CDC was set up, a new deadline would certainly be announced, he promised. But there is no guarantee that the promise would be kept because if that eventually should happen, Meechai wouldn't be there to answer all these tough questions anymore. That bumpy journey assumes, of course, that the draft gets the green light in the upcoming referendum. If, however, it gets rejected the country's politics would hurtle down another road, equally bumpy, and filled with another set of landmines.

Whichever road it takes, the next political show promises to set off a new round of heated debate and confrontations in all shades and forms.

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