Old wine new bottles
The newly-appointed head of the Constitution Drafting Commission leads a team of experts to prepare a new constitution for Thailand which will be ratified (or turned down) in a plebiscite. Meechai Ruchupan is an experienced drafter of charters and is already the centre of attention both here and worldwide. Given the country’s delicate political situation, can he succeed?
Doubts do persist
Judging from recent interviews, Meechai is likely to insist on putting in the new, proposed charter a clause that a future prime minister could be an unelected person. The safeguard would apparently be that members of the House of Representatives would need to vote him or her into office, presumably during a terrible crisis. But the very idea of an unelected prime minister can be seen as a slap in the face for the Thai electorate. Similar objections have been raised to Meechai’s idea of a crisis committee which could overrule the government.
No senate elections
Critics also say that Meechai has indicated that the Senate, or Upper House, does not need to be elected since that would make it a mere copy of the House of Representatives. Although Meechai has stated that the new constitution will contain some democratic features, this will seemingly not be one of them. Thus it can be argued that one of the problems over the past half century is that constitutional drafters aren’t democratic by instinct.
Short or long
Thai constitutions, which have had an average lifespan of four or five years, have tended to get longer and longer as time has gone on. Meechai has said he wants the latest one to be short and dynamic. The problem here is lack of detail leads to ambiguity which leads to arguments in the constitutional court by those seeking clarification.
Not uniquely Thai
On the other hand, these are not problems faced only in Thailand. For example, many countries have legislation in place for use in a national emergency. In Britain a civil contingencies act allows the monarch to suspend the right of the individual to a trial and bail for good and urgent cause. In the USA, the terrorism of September 11, 2011 led to an emergency regulation about the American armed forces – their size – which has still not been rescinded.
The 2014 quandary
It can also be argued on behalf of Meechai that Thailand isn’t a real democracy. Prior to the coup of May 2014, there was ample evidence of this. There were attempts by the then government to force through amnesty legislation (to benefit Thaksin) in the middle of the night as well as expensive populist schemes to ward off opposition to the regime. Also there were nightly bombings in Bangkok and substantial evidence that murders of innocent people were politically-inspired.
Sadly, there is little sign today of the much-debated national reconciliation. The country appears as polarized as ever between political parties which want a return to a general election under the old rules and those who want reforms before returning power to the voters. These reforms will presumably be indicated in the next version of the charter and may well include a new electoral system, as in Germany, which will prevent (or make nearly impossible) the emergence of one political party to rule on its own.
So Thailand remains bogged down in the traditional political dilemma. Should she hold a general election before the end of this year, as recently championed by the new US ambassador, and risk a return to the chaos of the pre-coup days? Or should Thailand wait awhile and seek a new basis on which to proceed? It is certainly tempting to support the ambassador’s statement. The problem is that it has been tried many times in the past and evidently leads to yet another coup d’etat. We certainly live in interesting times.