Interim constitution: There's more to it than meets the eye

opinion August 01, 2014 00:00

By Suthichai Yoon
The Nation

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If you read the provisions of the interim constitution carefully, you will get sufficient hints to draw your own picture of what the new political landscape looks like.

Article 19 makes it clear that the new 36-member Cabinet (including the prime minister) will be charged with the extra responsibilities of “reform” and “create national harmony” – new tasks that were never assigned to previous councils of ministers.
The “Reform Council”, of course, is another new feature of the charter. It will comprise 250 members, tasked with setting the reform agenda in 11 areas. It, however, is not responsible for drawing up the new constitution. Instead, there will be a “constitution drafting committee” with 36 members – equal in number to that of the Cabinet. But Cabinet members won’t be able to concurrently hold posts in the charter drafting panel to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
The qualifications for membership of the 220-member National Legislative Assembly, all appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) , are more lenient, though. Member of the Reform Council – or even outsiders – can be named to the provisional legislative body whose first major task is to pick the new prime minister.
Article 35 of the interim charter is perhaps the most significant in terms of where the NCPO wants the reform process to go.
Most revealing of all is the clause that specifies that the new “permanent” constitution must lay down measures to ensure the introduction of a “democratic system that conforms to Thailand’s social conditions”.
One interpretation of this particular clause is that the coup-makers are intent upon devising a new “democratic system” that doesn’t necessarily have to follow the western model. That will certainly pose a serious challenge to the charter writers and the whole process of debating to draw up a new roadmap for the return to democracy.
Another stipulation proposes to ramp up punishment for politicians found to be corrupt or caught cheating in an election. Instead of a five-year ban, the interim charter wants to bar them from politics for the rest of their lives.
If anything, this is supposed to be one more measure to rid the country of “money politics.” And if you take a closer look, another clause that also takes aim at corrupt politics is the thinly veiled proposal that “populist policy” be considered taboo in the future.
The term “populist policy”, of course, isn’t stipulated in so many words. But the mention of the undesirability of “any means of the government trying to promote political popularity that may cause damage to the country’s economy and the people in the long run” has the clear intention of getting rid of the practice of politicians exploiting the tax payers’ money to enhance their own popularity without regard for the damage to the country’s economy and good governance.
What’s more, if you read between the lines, you could also detect a subtle move to try to eliminate political “nominees” from the political scene as well.
Anti-corruption efforts are all there for everyone to see in the interim constitution. The big question is how to enshrine these good intentions into the highest law of the land with some clear, practical and transparent practices that will work in real life.
There are also attempts to make these clauses cast in stone, meaning that future amendments are not permitted – for fear that politicians may again change the content to revert to old, corrupt practices. But then, closing all the doors to amendments may pose a new risk: When normal channels of change are all closed, the temptation to carry out a break-in will be high.
In other words, if you can’t amend the charter under normal circumstances, the only avenue left would be another coup. That, of course, should be avoided at all costs. But then, it’s not for the current crop of coup-makers to say.
NCPO’s legal adviser Wisnu Krau-ngarm has been quoted as saying: “The NCPO has come up with all the proposals for reform because it doesn’t want to waste [a coup].”
Time will tell whether there is such a thing as a “good coup” or, for that matter, a “coup for reform”.