Thailand’s Interim Charter: The Future is Now

By Zachary Abuza

Storm clouds over the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: PaultheSeeker's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Storm clouds over the Democracy Monument in Bangkok, Thailand. Source: PaultheSeeker’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

King Bhumipol Ayulyadej on July 22 endorsed the interim charter submitted by National Commission on Peace and Order (NCPO) chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The terse interim charter has come under significant fire for allowing the junta to further consolidate power, with Article 44 allowing the NCPO to intervene in matters it deems “destructive to the peace and safety of the country”. In effect, it gives the NCPO oversight over all executive, legislative, and judicial powers, the latter being historically unprecedented.

The interim charter paves the way for the establishment of the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), which will have no more than 220 members. They will be hand-selected by the NCPO and appointed by the King. Although they are supposed to include academics, members from non-government groups, business people, and military officers, it is clear these will likely be people trusted by the junta leaders and royalist elite. Half of the membership will hail from the military. NLA members cannot have served as executives of political parties in the past three years, although they can be bureaucrats, uniformed military personnel, or judges. Selection should be completed by August and the NLA begin work in September.

The NLA will appoint a cabinet of no more than 35 people – none of whom has to be parliament members – to be made up of experts and technocrats. Already members of the NCPO and their advisory team seem to have locked in leadership of key ministries, including Gen Anupong (defense and deputy prime minister), Gen Tanasak (interior), and Gen Paiboon (justice). The NLA will also endorse an acting prime minister, now set to be Gen Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who will concurrently serve as NCPO chief, and not take his mandatory retirement in September, though he will step aside as chief of the Royal Thai Army.

Yet the NLA will have very limited powers – it will not have the authority to call a no-confidence debate or amend the charter. Its primary responsibility is to rubber stamp legislation, in particular laws the NCPO wants to pass before democracy is restored in late 2015. There are 12 bills that will be fast tracked and almost 400 pieces of legislation that may be considered.

More important than the NLA is the National Reform Commission (NRC). According to the interim charter, the NRC will be comprised of no more than 250 people, again hand-selected by the NCPO. Each of the 77 provinces will have a member. The remaining 173 will come from other fields or sectors of society, including politics, local administration, public health, environment, energy, media, education, and business. Each designated field can nominate up to 50 people, but the final selection remains the NCPO’s decision. One can be assured that they will all be “good people” and that this is not going to be an inclusive body. Like the NLA, it is expected that half of the NRC’s members hail from the military.

The NRC’s primary function is to ensure the Shinawatras and their allies never return to power by neutralizing the rural electorate, or the majority of the population, that continues to vote the Pheu Thai into power. It will do this by overseeing and approving the drafting of a permanent constitution, and through making recommendations to other laws. It will likely push through many of the suggested reforms espoused by the National Election Commission (NEC) and add some of their own.

The actual drafting of the constitution will be done by the 36 member Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC), whose chairman will be appointed by the NCPO. The NRC will nominate 20 members to the committee, and the NLA, cabinet, and NCPO will each nominate five members. The committee is required to incorporate nine principles as laid out by Article 35 of the interim charter. The NCPO, however, retains the power to amend the constitution.

The new charter is expected to also include key recommendations by the NEC, namely a wholly unelected Senate and a two-term limit for all members of parliament (MPs) in the lower house. The new constitution will grant the appointed Senate more power over the legislative process; and the military is expected to have block representation of no less than 25 percent.

But the real changes will be in negating the influence of rural constituencies, which will grow dramatically in size in coming years. The first proposal to do so is to increase the number of party-list seats from 80 of 480 to 240. NEC members are reportedly also discussing the redistricting of parliamentary districts to take away the power of the rural majority and give more weight to urban constituencies. In sum, rural districts in the north and northeast will be much larger than urban districts that have not been under the sway of Pheu Thai.

Another option for reforming the electoral system is the adoption of functional constituencies as advocated by protest leader Suthep Thagsuban and supporters of the People’s Democratic Reform Committee. In this formula, a percentage between 30 and 50 percent of parliamentary seats would be accorded to functional constituencies and professional groups (similar to those designated for representation to the NRC), while the remainder of the members of parliament would be directly elected in a first-past-the-post system. However, as this was a stated goal of Suthep and the PDRC, it may be too politically fraught.

In addition, the new charter will include provisions to weaken the influence of parties and party elites. For the lower house, there will likely be a two term limit for all members as well as anti-dynasty provisions. There will also be prohibitions on office for corruption, electoral fraud, drug offenses, and Lese Majeste.

Finally, the new charter will strengthen the power of independent commissions and agencies, including the NEC and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The Anti-Money Laundering Organization is also expected to become an independent commission.

The CDC has 120 days to draft the new constitution. It is worth noting that there is no requirement to hold a referendum on the new charter. If the CDC fails to obtain the NRC or the King’s approval, we will be back to square one with a whole new group of 36 CDC members.

Dr. Zachary Abuza is principal of Southeast Asia Analytics, and writes on Southeast Asian politics and security issues.Follow him on twitter @ZachAbuza.



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