Commentary: Will anxious Thai protesters wait for a new constitution?

Commentary: Will anxious Thai protesters wait for a new constitution?

The protesters’ second demand for a new and genuinely democratic constitution is being partially met, albeit within the tedious parliamentary process, says Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap.

People show the three-fingered salute during a protest, in Bangkok
People show the three-fingered salute during a protest, in Bangkok, Thailand October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

SINGAPORE: Thai anti-government protesters are making three demands – the resignation of the country’s prime minister, a new constitution and a review of the monarchy’s powers. 

However, it appears that only one of their three demands will be partially met.

Consequently, now the ball is in the court of the protesters, whose leaders have threatened to “further escalate” their protests until all their three demands are fully met. But how far they want to go in their unpredictable escalation?

Towards the end of the two-day parliamentary special meeting on Tuesday (Oct 27), Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha rejected the first of the three demands of the protesters by firmly declaring that he would not resign. 

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He stressed that he “would not cut a small hole for himself to flee” when the troubled Thai nation is still trying to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and suffering from unprecedented economic hardship.

PEOPLE’S DRAFT CONSTITUTION

The protesters’ second demand for a new and genuinely democratic constitution is being partially met, albeit within the tedious parliamentary process. 

They have demanded that Parliament scraps the current Constitution of 2017 and adopts “the people’s draft constitution”, which includes amendments to ensure that the prime minister is an elected lawmaker while also stripping senators' power to choose a prime minister.

Their proposal was submitted to the House Speaker on Sep 22 in a mass petition organised by the Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw), an academic NGO based in Thammasat University.  But this is not going to happen.

Initially, the iLaw-led petition had 100,732 supporting signatures. Subsequent verification by the Interior Ministry has found confirmation of 98,824 signatures – where a minimum of 50,000 signatures are needed.  

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives to a weekly cabinet meeting in Bangkok
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha arrives to a weekly cabinet meeting a day beforeÊmembers of parliament and senators will meet to vote for the next prime minister, at Government House in Bangkok, Thailand, June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Owners of these valid signatures have been notified and given until  Nov 12 to cancel their support of the petition if their signatures were used without their consent.

When Parliament opens for its regular session on Nov 1, the six pending bills on the Constitution – including one each tabled by the ruling party and the leading opposition party - will be taken together for further consideration. 

Parliamentarians already discussed these bills in September but delayed voting on them.  Instead they set up an ad hoc parliamentary committee to study the six bills. 

Opposition parties boycotted the committee, which they dismissed as a “delay tactic”. Nevertheless, the committee’s report will be presented to the Parliament at the beginning of the new ordinary session.

Few parliamentarians take the “people’s draft constitution” seriously.  It is also uncertain how much time the Parliament will spend on considering the “people’s draft constitution”. 

For instance, even though it was submitted to parliament two days before lawmakers met in September, Speaker of Parliament Chuan Leekpai deemed it too late to be tabled as part of the meeting agenda.

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At that sitting, lawmakers also cast doubt on whether such a proposal would truly be representative of the views of all Thais. Senator Somjet Bunthanom, a retired military officer, told Parliament: “I know well that if we allow a new constitution to be drafted, it will worsen the divisions in society.”

A NEW CONSENSUS

What looks more certain is an emerging consensus between the leading opposition party Phue Thai and the 19-party ruling coalition, to push for the formation of a national assembly to draft a new constitution. 

These parties have also agreed that no drastic changes shall be made to disturb traditional and sacrosanct constitutional provisions concerning the Thai state being “one and indivisible kingdom”; the Thai political system of democratic government with the monarch as the head of state; that the monarch is “enthroned in a position of revered worship and shall not be violated”; and the monarch has the prerogative to appoint and dismiss members of the Privy Council.

Anti-government protesters outside Thailand's parliament on September 24, 2020
Anti-government protesters outside Thailand's parliament on September 24, 2020 AFP/Mladen ANTONOV

On the other hand, the second largest opposition party, Move Forward, has maintained that there should not be any precondition when drafting a new constitution. 

The party, which is a successor of the dissolved Future Forward Party of Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, wants to see a new constitution that will ensure that sovereign power truly belongs to the Thai people, and the monarch reigns under rule of law of a democratic constitution, and stays above politics.

However, any drastic change to the Constitution requires the support of at least one-third of the 250 appointed senators, or 84 of them.    

Many senators have insisted that a national referendum must be held to let Thai voters decide. This is because the draft of the current Constitution was endorsed in the national referendum in August 2016, in which about 10.6 million voters endorsed the draft - an acceptance rate of 61.35 per cent.  

SECURING SENATORS’ SUPPORT

Overcoming the senators’ hurdle will require active lobbying of the prime minister, and a great deal of behind-the-scene heavy lifting by his influential deputy, Prawit Wongsuwan. Prawit was in charge of selecting most of the senators during the last few months of the previous military government.

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If and when at least 84 senators have been convinced to support scrapping the Constitution, then the next crucial question is to address how to recruit drafters of a new constitution. 

All opposition parties as well as the protesters want a national election of 200 members of the drafting assembly.  But the ruling coalition wants to elect only 150 and select 50 others - 20 Members of Parliament (MPs) and senators chosen by the Parliament. 20 constitutional experts chosen by the Council of University Presidents of Thailand and 10 students chosen by the Election Commission.   

Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha
Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha walks after attending a special parliament session to discuss the current political situation and the ongoing anti-government protests in Bangkok, Thailand, on Oct 26, 2020. (Photo: REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa)

With the support of senators, the ruling coalition has an upper hand in settling this question.

NATIONAL REFERENDUM NEEDED

Then, the Constitution’s Section 256 concerning constitutional amendments can be amended by adding a new section calling for the formation of a national assembly to draft a new constitution.  

Here, another hurdle emerges.  Any significant change to Section 256 shall require holding a national referendum for Thai voters to decide.

This will take time and money. A national referendum is estimated to cost at least 3 billion baht (US$96 million).  

One way to reduce this cost is to hold it on the same day of the upcoming election of provincial administration governments, scheduled for Dec 20 in all 76 provinces except Bangkok.

Once a national assembly has been formed to draft a new constitution, the drafting process itself will take quite some time: 120 days according to the opposition, and 240 days according to the ruling coalition.

The two sides also have different ideas of what to do to a new draft constitution.  The opposition wants to put it to a national referendum.  But the ruling coalition wants the Parliament to consider the draft first. 

If a majority of parliamentarians approve it, then the new draft shall be submitted to the King for promulgation.  Only when a majority in the Parliament reject the new draft shall a national referendum be held to consider it.     

Thailand Protests
King Maha Vajiralongkorn, center, waves as he arrives to participate in a graduation ceremony at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Sakchai Lalit)

The whole process will take about a year or longer if a national referendum is held. Should a majority of voters reject a draft constitution, then the drafting process goes back to square one, with the recruitment of a new group of 200 drafters.

NATIONAL RECONCILIATION FIRST

However, the protesters may not wait that long for a new constitution, especially if Prayut remains in power and their third demand for reforming the monarchy is not being addressed.     

To calm this unrest, Prayut can agree to a new initiative in Parliament to establish a national reconciliation committee. 

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The proposed committee will consist of seven groups of representatives: Cabinet members, opposition MPs, government MPs, Senators, protest leaders, counter-protest leaders who are the royalist Yellow Shirts, and non-partisan experts.  

The proposed committee might be headed by Speaker Chuan, or former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun.

Although such exercises in the past have yielded little except voluminous reports and long records of eyewitnesses’ testimonies,   

If a general amnesty for all those arrested during the months-long anti-Prayut rallies can be agreed upon this time however, that may then count for a positive outcome.

But, will this be enough to ease the frustration of the protesters and end all their rallies?  

It is difficult to tell, especially when some protest leaders have threatened to “escalate” their protests until all their demands are fully met – especially the third one on reforming the monarchy.

What is certain is that their “escalation” will face stronger pushbacks from the royalist “Yellow Shirts” who claim to represent the silent majority.  

Event to support the monarchy in Bangkok
Royalists wearing yellow shirts of which one is holding a picture of Thailand's King Maha Vajiralongkorn attend an event to support the monarchy in Bangkok, Thailand, October 27,2020. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Prayut however still looks determined and confident and enjoys firm political support of the ruling coalition in the House of Representatives and the 250 senators. The 66-year-old former Army chief and a royal loyalist has vowed to defend the monarch until his death if need be.

The ball, therefore, is now in the court of the protesters who must decide which of their demands they are willing to back down on as they are unlikely to see all three met.

Dr Termsak Chalermpalanupap is a Visiting Fellow in the Thailand Studies Programme, ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.

Source: CNA/ml

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