With the recent rejection of the draft constitution by the now defunct National Reform Council, here are some thoughts about where the government and Thailand is headed.
The National Reform Council voted today to reject the draft constitution that had been drafted over the past few months by the Constitution Drafting Committee. The move did not come as a surprise. Pundits had speculated long before that the draft had little chance of being passed by the NRC, and in many ways, it did seem like the constitution had been drafted to fail.
After all, the draft constitution had contained many controversial points, all of them unmissable targets for debate and intense criticism. First was the new mixed-member proportional electoral system, which would have made it more difficult for parties to gain an absolute majority, which ostensibly would have built an atmosphere of unity through the need for coalition governments. Second was the fact that the Prime Minister no longer had to be an elected member of parliament, making it so much easier for an outsider to take power. Third was the various new mechanisms that would have been put in place, such as organised local assemblies to decentralise power, adding more layers to the political system. But most important was a surprise addition that the drafters made not very long before the document was put to the vote: the creation of a five-year National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee (NSRRC), a 23-member group that would help guide the reform process, and step in in times of political conflict to suspend executive and legislative power.
I myself am a believer in the draft constitution that was rejected- that is, I believe that the new mechanisms that it would have put in place would have been, overall, beneficial to the country. The draft constitution had addressed many of the key demands that the PDRC protesters had made a year back; that includes decentralisation, combating corruption, and curbing the excesses of populist policies. I also don’t buy into the argument that pure democracy is the only way Thailand must be run, because I believe Thailand still needs a guiding hand before returning to a full elected government if we are to avoid a return to political strife, which the NSRRC would have provided. But with that said, it is not difficult to understand why the draft constitution was so criticised, and why so many academics in the NRC voted against it. If ‘democratic’ was the only criteria in which the draft constitution was assessed against, then of course it would not have scored high marks; the inclusion of the NSRRC in itself made sure of that.
And so, it was little surprise that the draft constitution was in the end rejected. With such public controversy, passing it right now would have sparked an outcry from the political parties, and in the campaigning for the referendum that would have followed, it would have been a tall order for the government to try to preserve order and maintain an atmosphere of unity. Indeed, some of the more cynical members of the press have already criticised the government of creating a farce- that is, pretending to bend to public opinion by rejecting a constitution that they had themselves drafted. (These members of the press ignore the fact that if the constitution had been passed, they would have also called the whole thing a democratic farce with a bunch of yes-men).
But it can hardly be expected that those who had most strongly criticised the draft will rejoice. After all, some of the most public criticism have come from Thaksin Shinawatra and the Pheu Thai Party, still itching to return to power after being deposed in the 2014 coup d’état. Once again, that is no surprise. The draft constitution was detrimental for all political parties in general, but it would have hurt the Pheu Thai the most. A party used to winning outright majorities would see its parliamentary size sliced down due to the new electoral process. If it did indeed win the next election, it would have been subject to strict babysitting by the NSRRC. And it would have had more trouble proposing and implementing its signature wasteful populist policies, due to clauses in the constitution that would have prohibited implementing these policies without clear needs and plans. By taking into account all of this, at first glance it would seem that Thaksin and the Pheu Thai have scored a major victory now that the draft constitution has been rejected.
It is not so. Now that the draft is rejected, it will take 180 more days for a new Constitution Drafting Committee to write another draft. It will then also have to be submitted for a referendum by the general public. Assuming that draft passes, elections could be held around mid-2017. Mid-2017 is quite a long time from now, and for a party that wants elections to be held as soon as possible, campaigning for the draft to be rejected and elections postponed was a serious misstep. Now, Prayut is guaranteed another year of two in power, and Prayut’s exercise of power has also been wholly detrimental to the Pheu Thai Party. After all, he has just used Section 44 to strip Thaksin of his police rank. The investigation of Yingluck for her disastrous rice scheme continues. Many of Thaksin’s cronies are now being prosecuted, their passports stripped and in some cases, they have been thrown into prison themselves- something unimaginable when Yingluck was still in power.
Indeed, by rejecting the draft constitution, the NRC seems to have given the NCPO an opportunity to completely eradicate the remains of Thaksin’s old regime. The Pheu Thais could have opted to accept the new constitution and wait for new elections to come. Instead, the party may have brought upon its own destruction.