A new decade seems like an opportunity to start afresh and begin anew, but observers of Thai politics, too numbed by false hope and signs of change, are unlikely to look at 2020 with anything more than cynicism.
How else, of course, to approach the fact that the new decade has started, once again, with conversations about constitutional amendment, of trying to produce a more democratic charter? The aspirations being held now about democratizing Thailand could very well have been the same as in 1997.
Even the faces in politics holding these conversations have not changed very much. Chuan Leekpai, prime minister in 1997 and currently house speaker, rang in the new year with some comments on charter amendment. All stakeholders, including the appointed senators, have to be consulted, he said. “If we really want the amendments to succeed, don’t topple them. We should get consent from all sides and talk to them [senators] about how to revise the charter or remove certain things and make it ‘democratic’.”
Chuan’s comments point very clearly to one of the main issues facing Thailand in 2020: there is deep institutional resistance within the parliamentary system as it stands against amending the constitution, but a similarly strong current of feeling amongst the opposition and large swathes of the public that the constitution must be amended. But the only way revision can legally happen, barring an extraconstitutional seizure of power, would have to be through parliamentary means.
The leader of the Democrat Party, deputy prime minister Jurin Laksanawisit, reminded us in December that one of the party’s priorities, and conditions for joining the government coalition, was constitutional amendment. In particular, Jurin said that the chapter on the process for constitutional amendment itself must be revised. The reason is because constitutional amendment is particularly difficult; a majority of all MPs and senators must be in favor, including at least a third of the Senate. Given that all the senators owe their positions to this constitution, amendment is difficult.
It is for this reason that Jurin has stated that Chapter XV of the constitution — on amendment — represents a “lock”, and revising this chapter itself would be the “key” to all other political reforms. I agree with this. There is no way any other part of the constitution can be revised without first reducing the say that the appointed senators have.
The question, then, is whether unpicking this lock is something that can actually happen from within the system. Theoretically, the Democrats should be pushing for it — it is one of their conditions for joining the coalition government, after all.
Can the Democrats under Jurin will rock the boat sufficiently to make it happen? They have been focused on preserving their electoral appeal in the south through commerce and agricultural policies, to the point where the media nicknamed Jurin the “independent state” for pursuing policies without coordination with the rest of the government.
This independent spirit seems unlikely to manifest itself in the arena of constitutional amendment. On one hand, key Democrat figures have made noise from time to time about the need for revision to keep their involvement on this conversation in the public eye — Jurin himself on multiple occasions, and Chuan most recently commenting on the need to remove army commanders from the Senate.
Yet the party, for all intents and purposes, is more likely to be pursuing amendment as a public relations strategy rather than out of true ideological desire. It is true that by publicly pursuing constitutional amendment, they can increase their appeal to groups that would otherwise vote for parties such as Future Forward.
But to force the issue, the Democrats would have to be willing to make a credible threat of walking away if the government refuses to yield — and at what point will the Democrats do that? With their electoral implosion in 2019, they are unlikely to be in the mood to take risks and rock the boat when they can remain in government and pursue policies for their base. I could be wrong — more testing times for the coalition can make the Democrats more likely to make a stand, and this would be a spectacular way to do it — but I wouldn’t bet on it.
Given that no other political party in the government has put in political capital for constitutional revision, there seems to be little hope of change from within the system. Absent a credible parliamentary process, the streets and protests will be the only venue for pro-revision forces to make their voices heard.
With this predicament coinciding with the prospect of Future Forward’s dissolution, 2020 looks increasingly likely to be the year where protests return to Bangkok. With a teaser by Thanathorn in December, and a hybrid running and protest event happening later this month, political activity will increasingly move from inside to outside parliament in 2020.
Of course, even those who know that political change from within the system is unlikely are unable to articulate how change can come about from outside. The more optimistic among us will hope that the powers that be recognize that the status quo is unsustainable, that change is inevitable and thus will eventually hand over the keys to political reform once support for revision has been made loud and clear. Realists will note that the government is too myopic to recognize this, and will only double down on suppression of pro-reform voices.
In the end, the start of this decade is shaping up to be a year of people trying to pick at the lock barring Thailand from moving forward politically — and of others trying to defend that lock. Finding and hiding the key will occupy politicians of all stripes in 2020.