Thailand braces for flashpoint as court rules on charter change

Another crucial moment for the Thai Constitution has arrived, with the court set to rule on March 11whether Parliament is authorised to pave the way for a charter rewrite.

The Constitutional Court’s ruling carries serious implications for Thailand’s tense political stand-off. The verdict could rock the Prayut government’s stability while also setting off the largest anti-establishment protests seen to date.

Why the push for charter change?

The push for charter change follows mounting pressure on the government from youth-led protesters calling for Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s resignation, a more democratic Constitution and reform of the monarchy.

Protesters and critics say provisions in the 2017 charter, which was written under the previous junta regime, are undemocratic and designed to help Prayut retain power following his 2014 coup as Army chief.

Parliament is due to hold a final vote on the charter amendment draft bill on March 17.

The draft bill contains three key points:

First, any change to the Constitution requires the support of at least three-fifths of members from both chambers. Second, 200 constituencies will be set up to elect the 200-member Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA). Third, the CDA’s new charter must be passed by the public in a referendum.

The draft also stipulates that Chapters 1 and 2 of the current Constitution – on general provisions and the monarchy – be left untouched.

What will the court rule on?

The court will rule whether the ongoing parliamentary process to pave the way for a CDA is constitutional. The court ruling comes in response to a petition filed by senators and ruling Palang Pracharath MPs last month.

Three scenarios

There are three possible scenarios for the ruling.

First, the court gives the green light for lawmakers to set up a CDA, and parliamentarians then vote to pass the draft bill in the final reading.

Second, the court rules Parliament has no authority to set up a CDA, forcing lawmakers to vote down the draft bill.

Third, the court passes the ball back to Parliament either by dismissing the petition or just by ruling that legislators are authorised or not authorised to set up a CDA.

Legal experts said the current Constitution stipulates that a court review of a draft bill can be sought after it passes the national referendum and before it is submitted for royal endorsement.

Stithorn Thananithichot, a political scientist from King Prajadhipok’s Institute, said the third scenario – passing the ball back to Parliament’s court – is a big possibility. In this case, lawmakers opposed to charter change would have to wait until the draft bill passes the public referendum to file another legal challenge. The referendum is expected to be held in July at the soonest.

“This option could buy time and delay the charter-change process,” said the analyst.

If, however, the court allows the amendment process to continue, he points out the bill could still be rejected in the third reading because some senators recently vowed to shoot it down. To pass, the bill requires support from more than half of parliament, including one-third (84 members) of the Senate – which was appointed under Prayut’s junta regime.

Stithorn believes Prayut’s ruling party may not want a referendum since it could spark wider political opposition and chaos during the referendum campaign.

Implications for Palang Pracharath and Democrats

Observers say a court ruling that blocked the ongoing amendment process would satisfy the government and senators opposed to charter change. However, it would also likely reignite the anti-establishment movement.

A ruling that blocked charter change would also leave Palang Pracharath’s coalition allies in a tricky position, said Stithorn.

“It’s not that easy for the coalition Democrat and Bhumjaithai parties. They would need to show opposition [to such a verdict] since they strongly backed the amendment previously,” he said.

Both coalition parties have pushed for charter change and even voted against the ruling party’s move to petition the Constitutional Court for a ruling.

Stithorn said that to maintain popularity with their political base, the two coalition parties may ally themselves with the anti-establishment movement as it escalates protests against Palang Pracharath and senators.

“This would also boost their [the Democrats’] bargaining power in the upcoming reshuffle,” he said.

The Democrat Party lost a portfolio after its minister was sentenced to jail for his role in People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) rallies against the Yingluck Shinawatra government in 2013-14. More Democrats MPs also stand to lose their status following the verdict, diluting Democrat Party’s influence in Parliament.

Protest movement boosted?

Since taking a break in mid-December, the anti-establishment protest movement has been in disarray over splits in strategy. Protesters recently returned to the streets, but they failed to maintain pressure on the government as rallies ended in clashes with police and more of their leaders arrested.

However, a court ruling to void charter change would likely reunite the movement and inject fresh momentum for mass rallies against the government and status quo.

Stithorn said senior figures in the student-led movement want to downplay the push for monarchy reform and focus on charter change to draw more allies.

This could help them attract huge mass turnouts for rallies, he added.

“Pheu Thai and other opposition parties, maybe even the Democrats, could join them,” he said.

Red-shirt leader Jatuporn Promphan agrees that rejection of charter change would lead to a turning point for Thailand. If the amendment bill is blocked by either the court’s ruling or the Senate, protesters would step up to oust the government, he said.

“Eventually, people will feel deceived by the ruling Palang Pracharath Party. Its coalition partners, the Democrats and Bhumjathai, will be also be pressured by the protesters,” Jatuporn said. “I believe this will be a flashpoint for Thailand. The government will face the biggest protests ever.”

However, Yuthaporn Issarachai, a political scientist from Sukhothai Thammathirat Open University, believes successful passage of the charter amendment would have no effect on the protests.

The protesters have lost interest in the charter change process after their favoured “people’s amendment” was shot down last November, he said.

“If the [current] bill finally comes into force, it won’t end the protests. And if it fails, the ongoing conflict may become more complex, but [charter change] is no longer a core demand of protesters,” he said.

Source: Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS)