Why revise the constitution, some ask, when the government’s attention and toil would be better spent on improving people’s livelihoods?
This is a question that has come up with ever-increasing frequency as the Future Forward party has organized town halls across the country to promote the idea of constitutional revision.
Despite the bipartisan look that the events have taken — figures from across the political aisle such as former Democrat members Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, Kasit Piromya and Parit Wacharasindhu have taken part — there is no doubt that the desire for constitutional revision stems mainly from the opposition ranks. Although the prime minister has pledged to open up debate for amending the constitution, there has been very little action from the government.
The lack of urgency is, on one level, understandable. There is a distinct lack of motivation: Palang Pracharath was a big beneficiary of the 2017 constitution. But more importantly, there is no popular support from any PPRP supporters because on the surface Thailand’s mounting economic problems seem to present a better use of the government’s time. Indeed, many on social media have criticized Future Forward MPs for “not spending enough time” on issues affecting ordinary people and instead campaigning for constitutional amendment.
However, framing the choice as focusing on improving people’s livelihoods or revising the 2017 constitution is a false dichotomy; revising the constitution is one way to improve people’s livelihoods. Professor Prajak Kongkirati wrote an excellent article in Thai about why constitutional revision is irretrievably linked with the state of the economy. This is an argument that has to be made more frequently to win over more supporters for constitutional revision. In particular, I believe one reason that Professor Prajak made in particular is worth repeating because it is most likely to resonate even with PPRP supporters: that the 2017 constitution is a key impediment towards effective problem-solving because it creates weak governments.
Governments in Thailand have seldom not involved coalitions, but it is not a coincidence that an unprecedented 19-party coalition emerged for the first time after the current charter was promulgated. The intention behind the use of a bizarre electoral system is to generate parliaments with many small parties that would then create unwieldy coalition governments. Limiting the power of the executive branch was always part of the raison d’être of the 2017 constitution.
Professor Prajak points out several concrete ways in which the corrosive effect on policymaking that this weak coalition government has produced can be seen. They include how even one-MP parties can wield decisive influence on the government, and politicians of unsavory backgrounds and dubious qualifications can be appointed as ministers to satisfy coalitional demands with little regard for skill and intellect.
Furthermore, the patchwork nature of the parties who supposedly cooperate means that there is no unity in policymaking. The Finance ministry is controlled by Palang Pracharath, the Commerce and Agricultural ministries by the Democrats, the Transporation ministry by Bhumjaithai and the Labor ministry by Ruampalangprachachat. All those ministries must cooperate on the economic front, but the factional nature of this government means that there will inevitably be more friction than desired. A case in point was when the Democrats announced they would guarantee palm prices, leading deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan to ask the next day, “where would the money come from?”
The type of weak governments that the 2017 constitution has produced, and is likely to keep producing, are not geared for policy success. Yet effective governance is exactly what Thailand needs right now as it faces increased economic problems, from a suffering tourism industry to a weak export sector to continued income inequality.
In sum, it is not normal for coalition governments to contain almost twenty parties; instead it is the result of a constitution that was built not to provide effective governance but instead to ensure a certain political group returned to power. Designing a constitution that would generate better, stronger governments should not be a partisan issue.
Although this argument is likely to be less persuasive for the unconverted, another reason that should be added for why constitutional amendment matters for the economy is due to prospective instability, . The 2017 constitution was intended to create an extremely lopsided playing field; that much is an open secret. For now we have kept the peace, but for how long? It is fantasy to expect that over half the country that explicitly voted for a new premier would not grow restless if electoral results continue to be distorted.
Renewed instability would surely affect business confidence. Just the uncertainty that resulted from the months-long delay in forming the government caused business confidence to dip to a 15-month low. Thailand can ill afford returning to more protests and division, but that is exactly where we are headed if the political system continues to reject the sentiments of large swathes of the country. More lasting stability can only be reached with a constitution that is reached through a much more consensual process.
I’d like to write more about my thoughts on both other reasons why the constitution should be amended, where fixes are needed in the coming weeks and months and how amendment could actually be achieved. But I’ve decided to put the economic argument front and center today, because I think that if there is one reason that can convince a broader segment of society that are skeptical about why effort should be spent on such seemingly arcane political matters, this is it.
The truth is the constitution matters more than just in the abstract; it directly translates to whether or not the government is able to deliver on bread and butter issues.
(Cover image credits).