The new charter reflects distrust and disdain of the electorate.
Set against a political malaise that has persisted for more than a dozen years of topsy-turvy protests and turmoil, punctuated by two related military coups in 2006 and 2014, Thailand's newly promulgated Constitution under the new reign of King Maha Vajiralongkorn is supposed to restore a semblance of stability and provide a way forward. That is not the case.
The new Constitution is instead likely to lead to more political imbalance that will prolong disguised military rule and end in more popular radicalisation and an eventual pushback against the men in uniform.
In the process, Thailand risks becoming an also-ran country, one that was full of potential and blessed with good geography but ended up a subpar place unable to get its act together for the long term.
To be sure, Thailand has already squandered three decades during which it could have made the jump to an OECD country with a developed economy and vibrant democracy.
First, it wasted an economic boom from 1988 to 1995 due to cronyism and corruption among central and commercial bankers and elected politicians, and saw the boom in a bust with the 1997 financial crisis. However, political prospects were bright at that time. An anti-military popular uprising in Bangkok in 1992 had ushered in a reform-oriented and bottom-up "people's Constitution" in 1997. That Constitution made the legislature fully elected. Those years, however, ended with the mixed era of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose party machine repeatedly won elections but was also dogged by allegations of vested interests and graft.
Thaksin's popular rule and abuse of power culminated in the September 2006 military coup, thereby ending another decade of what could have been a trend-setting democratic development. A new charter was put in place in 2007 that provided for half of the seats in the upper chamber to be appointed.
As Thaksin's party kept winning under different names, including the Pheu Thai banner of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra in July 2011, polarisation in Thailand between "yellow shirts" and "red shirts" never went away.
The coup in May 2014 put an end to the third decade of Thailand's potential as a consolidated democracy on a par with the likes of South Korea.
Almost three years after its latest military coup, Thailand is no better off. A new election is planned but its date is uncertain. The 2017 Constitution, the third in 20 years, is a full reversal of its 1997 precursor and a throwback to Thailand's undemocratic past based on an engineered legislature that gives the 250-member military-appointed Senate latitude to hold the elected Lower House in check. The ruling generals will need only 126 out of 500 Lower House MPs to gather a simple majority and win key votes, including the selection of the prime minister after the election.
As its overall structure is premised against elected representatives, the new charter harbours distrust and disdain towards the electorate. Thai politicians have been notoriously corrupt and shoddy over the years, but when they get their chance in power, the top brass have had their own kind of corruption scandals. The difference is that the electorate are allowed to take politicians to task - unlike under military rule.
The critical constitutional change is the appointed Senate, which is fully under the military's purview. In the 1997 and 2007 versions, the Senate - fully elected and split equally between elected and appointed senators respectively - played an instrumental role in staffing the independent agencies like the election and anti-corruption agencies and the constitutional court to promote accountability and transparency. With the Senate now fully under military control, the accountability-promoting agencies may be suspect and subservient to military prerogatives.
Moreover, the new charter reshapes the locus of power.
The executive branch has been directly weakened. It will be difficult for the next elected civilian-led government to implement a legislative agenda. For example, it has to report and justify to independent agencies as to why certain investment projects are worthwhile. Fiscal policy and budget expenditures will be constitutionally scrutinised.
The national anti-corruption commission will be dominated for the next five years by junta-chosen appointees who will likely check on the corruption of politicians more than generals.
The judiciary has lost credibility in recent years but yet has been vested with more authority in the new charter, while the legislature has been fragmented and will be penetrated by military interests. In fact, the military can now be said to form Thailand's fourth branch of government.
At issue going forward will be the traditional role of the monarchy.
If the new reign ends up rebalancing the different branches of political power among the executive, legislative, judiciary and military, reinforced by progressive segments of civil society, Thailand could recalibrate for a viable democratic rule consistent with international norms.
Whether this pre-1997 constitutional set-up can carry the day, and produce the kind of political system that can work for Thailand, will still depend on voter preferences. Despite the rules being stacked against the representatives they elect, voters will still count when their moment arrives.
If there is a broad-based backlash against the military by the time of the next election, it could be to the benefit of the established political parties. But if the military can divide and co-opt political parties and maximise its constitutional opportunities, then its longer-term dominance of Thai politics may become a reality.
Ultimately, Thailand may now be stuck with this lopsided charter for some time, even though its 19 precursors were overthrown over the last 85 years. Whatever changes that are needed to rebalance the uneven appointments system and popular representation may have to be done through amendments because this charter now carries more weight with the new monarch signing it into force on April 6. Democratic aspirations in the charter will have to be expressed by way of amendments rather than a complete rewrite for the foreseeable future.
Thailand now has a chance to regain its footing under a new reign and a new Constitution but only if its squabbling and selfish elites are willing to mutually sacrifice and strike a new understanding to rebalance the political system and move into a new era. What has been going on does not bode well for where Thailand needs to proceed.
A compromise and a new balance are needed so that democratic forces are given more space to satisfy domestic grievances and international expectations. Instead, a long-term military rule through proxies appears on the cards. This may lead to more turmoil and conflict and risks Thailand landing up as a so-so country, not a basket case but one whose status is subpar over the long term and bereft of even its old muddling magic.
The writer teaches International Political Economy and directs the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Thailand's new Constitution points to more political imbalance'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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