The draft charter's democratic deficit

opinion August 25, 2015 01:00

By The Nation

2,214 Viewed

The new constitution would turn back the clock to the authoritarian rule of the late 1970s and '80s

The draft constitution, if passed by the National Reform Council (NRC) and then a public vote, would be a serious setback for democracy in Thailand.
Rather than ushering in “Thai-style democracy”, as claimed by Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) chief Borwornsak Uwanno, the proposed national blueprint reflects the undemocratic way in which it was created.
The drafters were picked by the National Council for Peace and Order, the junta responsible for carrying out the coup. The CDC claims it has collected opinions from various sectors of society, but a lack of transparency means there is no way of testing that assertion. The NRC, which must vote on whether to accept or reject the draft charter, was also was hand-picked by the junta and is dominated by like-minded establishment elites.
Democracy (“rule by the people”) emphasises the common man’s rights, freedom and equality. In contrast, this constitution would place the power to govern firmly in the hands of the elite and the bureaucracy.
Article 28 makes it mandatory for citizens to vote in general elections, but what is the point in casting your ballot if the constitution reserves key positions in the administration and legislative body for unelected persons?
Article 118 says the majority of senators would be “selected”, with just 77 chosen by election – one for each province. This means the majority in the Senate would be made up of retired military generals and other officials, representatives of professions and “people of high moral standing”, the last category still undefined. Though such a Senate would not have a mandate from the people, it would enjoy the power to impeach holders of political office, high-ranking members of the judiciary and the Attorney General.
Article 165 stipulates that a non-MP could become prime minister if endorsed by at least two-thirds of the House of Representatives. This kind of political arrangement threatens a return to the so-called “quasi-democracy” in place between 1978 and 1988, when elected politicians invariably chose retired Army generals as prime minister.
With this draft charter, any general could use the persuasive force of military might to convince elected politicians to vote him into the country’s top job.
The most worrisome items in the draft constitution are Articles 260 and 280 on the role of the National Committee on Reform and Reconciliation Strategy. This committee of 23 members, which would include the prime minister, the supreme commander of the military, the chiefs of the three armed forces and the police chief, together with former premiers and former heads of legislative bodies and the judiciary, would be empowered to intervene in any political impasse or crisis.
The constitution does not offer a clear definition of what constitutes such an impasse or crisis. Article 280 simply says that, for five years after the charter comes into force, the committee could hold the reins of power in order to halt political conflict, to protect national sovereignty or to prevent, stop or suppress any threat to national security, the monarchy or the economy.
The committee would have to secure a two-thirds majority vote among its members in support of any intervention before it could go ahead with this “mini-coup”. However, this leaves the way open for an unscrupulous political faction to engineer a crisis or conspiracy so as to seize power from the elected administration.
Rather than being a council for reform and reconciliation, the committee could end up becoming a lever of power for elite political interests, thus ensuring continuation of the current conflict. If the charter drafters have merely set a time bomb for permanent national squabbling, then the months and tax money spent on writing the new constitution will have been wasted.