Constitution Court's ruling: A new stalemate of ambiguities

opinion July 19, 2012 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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First there was euphoria on both sides. Then there was doubt. Now the protagonists are set for another showdown.

The Constitution Court’s ruling last Friday was initially hailed by both the ruling Pheu Thai Party and opposition Democrats, as well as their respective supporters, as a compromise that should calm the country’s tense political atmosphere.

The government side praised the court for rejecting its opponents’  petition that the ruling party’s move to amend the constitution was unconstitutional and that it was aimed at overthrowing the country’s democratic system.
The judges said there was no evidence to back up the claim since the petitioners were only “anticipating” a scenario that wasn’t supported by any substantial actions.
The opponents, on the other hand, were delighted that the government and the ruling party could not rewrite the whole charter without a prior referendum.
At one point during the aftermath of the verdict reading, some analysts even suggested that the court’s ruling was a “win-win” decision for all sides concerned. These academics said the court had finally come up with “way out for society”.
But hardly had a day passed when both sides began to cast doubt on just what the verdict actually meant.
The first question is: Can Pheu Thai and its supporters proceed with a vote in the third and final reading of the constitutional amendments, to set up a new constitution-drafting assembly to rewrite the charter?
Nobody can come up with a clear answer to that question. The court’s verdict “suggested” that, since the current constitution was put into force by a referendum, any attempt to change any part should first seek approval from the public through another referendum. 
“Is that an opinion or a judgement?” asked Pheu Thai’s Samart Kaewmeechai, chairman of the Constitution Amendment Panel in the House.
Another related question: If a new referendum is to be held on the issue, should it be held before or after the new constitution draft is completed?
Yet another follow-up question: If a referendum is to be held, what question is to be put to the public?
The verdict made it clear that if the ruling party wants to make changes to the constitution, it could do it on an “article-by-article” basis, not with a total rewrite. In that case, the government-backed party with a majority in the House would have to start the process all over again – back to square one, so to say.
Some Pheu Thai Party members say that route would in fact provide a speedier process for them to amend the constitution, since they have the majority of votes in the House and could push for all the changes they want without the added burden of having to hold a referendum.
But there could be a trap there. Some government MPs fear that if they followed that option, their opponents could file a new petition to the Constitution Court, arguing that Pheu Thai was challenging the spirit of the current constitution. 
“We might fall into a new trap – whether to proceed with voting on the third reading of the pending constitutional amendments or to restart the process to go the route of changing the charter article by article,” another senior Pheu Thai Party member said.
Even those who oppose Pheu Thai’s moves are beginning to wonder how the ambiguities of the verdict could be cleared up so they could not be exploited by the powers-that-be to tinker with the constitution to suit their ultimate political aims.
Now, as you can see, things could change overnight. The initial joy of most parties concerned has turned into scepticism and a sense of desperation.
“Victory” for the political parties, however short-lived and illusory, doesn’t necessarily translate into “victory” for the people.
That’s because this is Thailand, where every legal ruling is plagued by all shades of interpretation and ends up as a stalemate. This is just the latest, not the last.