August 21, 2014 01:00 By Suthichai Yoon
The National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) says it will give the 250-member National Reform Council (NRC) a "free hand" in debating the 11 areas of proposed reform. But the final decision on who will be named to the council still rests with the NCPO.
That perhaps explains why there remains a degree of scepticism over whether “genuine reform” can really take place, if the members are handpicked by the powers-that-be despite the appointment of 77 “selection committee members” to the 11 groups. They are supposed to “screen” the nominations and applicants from around the country in order to compile a shortlist – to be finalised by the NCPO chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha.
The two major political parties – Pheu Thai and the Democrats – have publicly declared they are not fielding any candidates. Publicly, the official reason for the decision to stay out is to avoid any possibility of conflict of interest. Privately though, some of their politicians are expressing doubt as to whether the reform process will lead to anything conclusive.
A few small parties, though, have jumped in, and were immediately seen as a tactic to play all the cards they could lay their hands on. Some of them are even seen as being close to the previous government – and are now trying to jump on the bandwagon, possibly trying to serve as a bridge between the present and previous administrations.
There is no guarantee, of course, that the reform process will be smooth or effective. In fact, if the 250 members finally named to the NRC aren’t seen to be “representative” of the general public, the NCPO will inevitably be put on the defensive. A crisis of confidence will set in and the “second phase” of the NCPO’s roadmap will be in trouble, thereby undermining the “third phase” that promises a new election to usher in a popularly elected government.
Even if the formation of the NRC is perceived to be generally acceptable to the general public, there is still the question of whether “accidents” could occur along the way that will derail or delay the transition from the second to the third phase.
Article 38 of the provisional Constitution stipulates that if the NRC fails to complete its task of drawing up the new charter within the specified period of time or it rejects the draft, then the NCR and the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) will be automatically dissolved – and new NRC and CDC committees will have to be selected – and the old members on both panels would be prohibited from being nominated to the new committees.
In other words, we will be back to Square One if, for one reason or another, the NCR fails to perform.
If that eventuality should come to pass, the NCPO’s public timeline leading up to general election in October next year will most probably be put off. That could shatter the military leaders’ credibility, and their whole claim to be putting the country back on the democratic track could be derailed.
What are the chances of this scenario happening? Cynics are already suggesting that the clause was incorporated into the provisional charter to allow the military junta to back-pedal in case things don’t proceed the way the top brass want them to.
Things will get more complicated once the NRC starts its deliberations on how the reform process should proceed and how the tasks can be finalised amid the wide range of divergent views on major national issues including anti-corruption measures, populist policies, the rich-poor gap, social and media rules, etc.
It’s also not clear how the “reform agenda”, even if it is finally adopted, could be incorporated into the draft constitution draft that will be taken up by the charter drafting committee, which may or may not agree with all the proposals submitted by the NRC.
There is also the question of how the NCPO’s representatives assigned to the National Legislative Assembly, the National Reform Council and the Constitution Drafting Committee will conduct themselves if caught in controversial debates, including on proposals that could compel the armed forces to become more transparent.
The official timeline may appear to be clear and reasonably short but the road ahead could be long and bumpy. The “what if” scenario cannot be ruled out.