New Charter equals old system for Thailand?

New Charter equals old system for Thailand?
Thai Army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha pauses as he addresses reporters at the Royal Thai Army Headquarters in Bangkok in this May 26, 2014 file photo. Coup leader Chan-ocha said that Thailand's king had formally endorsed his position as head of the military council that will run the country.

Post-coup Thailand tore up its 18th Constitution and is now mulling over a new one.

The document is being penned under the close watch of the military government, with martial law shielding the drafters from the most contentious of debates.

The Constitution Drafting Committee plans to hold public hearings from this month. While the final version will be tabled only later this year - and elections expected only from next year - its broad strokes are already apparent to most observers: It will crimp the power of erstwhile dominant political parties and make it easier for an unelected person to assume the helm of the country.

Over the past few months, the drafters have sifted through a spectrum of proposals, considering - but dropping - the idea of a directly elected prime minister. But they have spoken in support of a proportional representation system that would let smaller parties get more seats.

More controversially, they have suggested that the premier need not be an elected Member of Parliament.

Committee chairman Borwornsak Uwanno sees the option of an unelected premier as a last resort that can be used to break a political deadlock and avert military intervention.

Critics argue the deadlock that led to the coup last May was engineered - by an elite-funded street protest movement, an election commission reluctant to conduct fresh polls and a judiciary which curbed the power of the government of premier Yingluck Shinawatra and eventually threw her out of office.

"This is a 'retro' Constitution," quips Chulalongkorn University political scientist Naruemon Thabchumpon, echoing the sentiments of many progressives who fear the upcoming Charter will usher in a period of unstable coalition governments that dominated Thai politics more than a decade ago.

For the most part of the 1980s, military strongman Prem Tinsulanonda was prime minister despite being unelected.

General Prem, who now heads the Privy Council that advises King Bhumibol Adulyadej, remains an influential elder to the current crop of coup-makers.

Depending on which side one sits on Thailand's yawning political divide, the conflict is caused either by the "parliamentary dictatorship" of Ms Yingluck's erstwhile dominant Puea Thai party, or the royalist elite adamant on upending a government consistently chosen by the majority of voters.

Some who are familiar with the reconciliation processes in other strife-torn countries have dim hopes that this new Charter would help to bring opposing parties together in a meaningful way.

The manner in which the Charter is drafted is as important as its content, stresses Dr Eakpant Pidavanija, a lecturer at Mahidol University's Research Centre for Peace Building. But the military has used martial law to silence opposing opinions.

Academic Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, urges that such "pessimism" be set aside.

The ideas being discussed by the Charter drafters "far exceed expectations", he argues.

To return to normalcy, "everybody needs to compromise", he says. "We cannot return to the old system, but we cannot jump too far ahead of ourselves."

Thailand's harsh lese majeste law - which prescribes a jail term of up to 15 years for insulting the royal family - prevents open discussion about a key source of anxiety.

King Bhumibol, 87, is revered and Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has big shoes to fill.

Given such uncertainties, some wonder if the drafters would work in a clause or two that would legitimise a role for the junta even after elections.

This scenario would leave Thailand with a shiny new Constitution, but exactly the same powers pulling the strings.

This article was first published on Jan 09, 2015.
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