Battle to reclaim Thai constitution

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 April, 2008, 12:00am

What might turn out to be the final engagement in the battle for supremacy in Thailand's politics is now taking shape. The elected government has outlined plans for a wholesale rewrite of the junta's constitution, which was crafted to preserve some power for the army and curb the politicians.

Such is the scope of the proposed changes - 90 per cent of the constitution will be rewritten - that they amount to a new constitution in all but name.

This is the first time a government elected by universal suffrage has gone about such a task with zeal. Parliament is set to approve the amendment bill, given the government's majority in the House of Representatives and its influence among senators.

This is no small matter. Amending the constitution will assert the supremacy of parliament, borne of the sovereignty of the electorate, against elite bureaucrats and generals clustered around the palace.

They have not fared well in the rise of electoral politics, especially since 1997, when widespread public consultation resulted in a constitution that was hailed for its democratic spirit and held up as a model for other countries trying to move away from autocracy. The coup of 2006 was a move to protect entrenched power and privilege.

But the government and many opposition politicians are unhappy with Article 237, which allows the Constitutional Court to dissolve parties if senior executives are caught engaging in dubious election practices such as buying votes. Two junior coalition parties will be hauled before the court in the next few months on charges stemming from December's election. So might the People Power Party, later this year.

A similar article from the 1997 constitution, which was abrogated when the military took power, was used last May to dissolve ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party and ban 111 senior politicians, including him, from politics for five years. Whether a military tribunal could rule on a case using a constitution no longer in effect is questionable.

Politicians are aghast that this provision found its way into the military's constitution. They argue it is unfair for the entire party to suffer for those unlucky enough to be caught. It is more unfair to voters, because they are effectively disenfranchised.

Moreover, in practice the article does little to clean up elections. As a tool for controlling politicians, it has failed. Out of Thai Rak Thai sprung People Power.

But if not Article 237, then what? The state's record of prosecuting senior politicians and bureaucrats for corruption is not just woeful; there is basically no record because there have been so few instances. The election commission seems to be working better, but it is unclear if the constitutional amendments will beef up its powers.

That is surely the least People Power can do to show some democratic spirit - they are players writing rules for the referee. Critics are demanding public input and a referendum. There is no need, retorts the government, claiming legitimacy from its vow to voters to fix the constitution.

It rests with the people to say who writes what rules. One day, a party might emerge with popular appeal promising to do a better job on the constitution. It could be a long wait. For now, ordinary people are more concerned with prosaic matters like health care, schools and jobs.

David Fullbrook is an independent researcher and writer on Asian affairs