Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Was Thailand's draft constitution set up to fail?

Was Thailand's draft constitution set up to fail?
Published 8 Sep 2015 

Thailand's military junta has effectively extended its rule after the National Reform Council, a body hand-picked by the military leadership, rejected a new constitution to replace the one annulled by the coup 15 months ago. A return to civilian rule now looks unlikely before 2017, and it could be even later.

The document was rejected in a vote of 135 against and 105 in favour. A new body will now have to be formed and will have a further 180 days to produce a replacement draft constitution. If approved, there would then be further delays before it is put to a referendum. There is no guarantee that the passage of any subsequent documents will be any smoother. 

The military Government, which came to power in May 2014 after overthrowing the democratically elected Government of Yingluck Shinawatra, has given only half-hearted promises of a return to democracy. It now seems that the timeline for holding elections, which the junta fears will give victory to its opponents under the current electoral system, is slipping further away.

Just weeks ago, the draft constitution looked set to pass. But in the week leading up to the vote, sentiment seemed to change swiftly, especially among the military members of the voting Council. The constitution's rejection by the Government-appointed Council has led to suggestions that it was set up to fail, in part to extend the power of the military junta.

There is no doubt that there are strong reasons to reject the proposals set out in the draft document. Analysts agreed that it was a draconian piece of drafting. But there was one article, added at the last minute, that provoked the most controversy and perhaps marked the whole document for failure. This most controversial of the 285 articles was the creation of a 23-member committee, including senior members of the military and police, to take control during times of 'conflict that leads to violence.' Its authority would have lasted for five years, with the possibility of extension via a referendum. [fold]

Nearly all political parties were opposed to this clause, saying it amounted to the ability to stage a legal coup. But their criticisms went far deeper than this one article. 

Both the Peua Thai party of the Shinawatra clan, and their political opponents the Democrat Party, spoke out against the charter. Former Democrat Party Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said the charter would weaken the role of elected officials: 'they should be making parties stronger but governments more accountable, but they are now making parties weaker but governments less accountable.' It was a sentiment shared by Yingluck Shinawatra, the ousted former prime minister. 

It's not really known what the Thai public thought about the constitution. They were banned from discussing it in public. Even political parties were prevented from debating the merits and weaknesses of the draft document.

There were other genuine reasons to reject the draft constitution, including:

  • The adoption of an electoral system, styled partially on the German model, would likely weaken political parties and promote the formation of weak coalition governments.
  • The prime minister would no longer be required to be elected, an article seemingly aimed at extending the power of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.
  • The generals involved in last year's coup would be granted immunity from prosecution. 

But there were more pragmatic concerns. There were genuine fears that the passing of the unpopular constitution could cause political discontent and unrest. It was also doubtful whether the document would have made it through the referendum process.

No other country has had as many constitutions as modern Thailand. This would have been the 20th charter since the end of absolute monarchy in 1932. Thailand has had a new constitution at an average rate of one every four years. 

A return to civilian rule now seems increasingly unlikely, at least for several years. Whether the draft constitution was designed to fail is a moot point.

But with a royal succession looming – an event with the potential to re-shape Thai politics – it seems those in a position to influence an outcome in their favour will be reluctant to relinquish power. The continuous process of drafting and re-drafting of constitutions and the necessary delays in holding an election could well be seen by the ruling junta as the preferred outcome.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Adaptor- Plug.

You may also be interested in