Thai Parliament Rejects Bill to Make Constitution More Democratic

Nontarat Phaicharoen
Bangkok
2021-11-17
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Thai Parliament Rejects Bill to Make Constitution More Democratic Thai demonstrators seeking to amend the 2017 Constitution protest outside of Parliament in Bangkok, March 13, 2020.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

Thailand’s parliament on Wednesday again voted down a bill to amend the military-backed constitution, adopted in 2017 under the junta led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha, to make it more democratic.

This attempt and a similar one in November 2020 to change the constitution included an amendment to abolish the Senate, whose pro-royalist members are chosen by the military. Pro-democracy protesters have been demanding this constitutional change since July 2020.

Parit Wacharasindhu, of an umbrella group “Re-solution,” whose members filed the motion before parliament in June, said the Senate was nothing but a tool to help Prayuth, the current prime minister and former army chief, retain power.

“The 2017 Constitution is of Prayuth, for Prayuth and by Prayuth,” Parit told MPs on Tuesday. “If we analyze it, its origin and contents have one only purpose – to let Prayuth extend his ‘regime.’

“The Constitution permits more senators than in the past decades. The 250 senators’ authority to jointly select a prime minister with 500 lower house members contradicts the principle of one vote … in a democracy.”

Prayuth became prime minister after spearheading a coup that toppled a civilian government in 2014. After the 2019 general election, the ex-general – who received nearly all of the Senate votes and nearly 500 total – was elected to the post of PM. The Senate speaker abstained in his capacity as the presiding officer.

‘Aggressive wording’

As was expected, lawmakers voted against the amendment bill 473 to 206, with 6 abstentions, House Speaker Chuan Leekpai said after a two-day debate that ended Wednesday.

Speaking out against the proposed amendment, Sen. Seri Suwanpanond told lawmakers that the bill “contained aggressive wording and infringed on many organizations.”

While House members’ terms end in March 2023, the handpicked-senators will stay a year longer to vote for a new prime minister. Analysts said this could aid Prayuth, should he decide to stay in office, or a successor likely linked to the junta he led after the 2014 coup.

The draft amendment, signed by more than 130,000 people, called for removing junta-picked officials at the Constitutional Court and other independent organizations, and required prime ministerial candidates to have been elected to the House.

It also sought the creation of mechanisms to prevent coups along with no amnesty for coup leaders, and allowed investigations of the armed forces, courts and independent organizations.

Military leaders have been seen as staunch royalists who protect the country’s three pillars – the nation, religions and the monarchy – and who have led more than 20 coups since 1932, the year Thailand converted from absolute monarchy to constitutional monarchy.

Youth-led protests

Since July 2020, youth-led pro-democracy protesters have rallied to demand that Prayuth step down, the constitution be rewritten and the monarchy be reformed.

The vote against the amendment comes after the Constitutional Court ruled last week that demands voiced by three prominent pro-democracy protest leaders to reform the monarchy had violated the constitution. The court ordered the trio to refrain from criticizing the royal family.

The Constitutional Court is one of the independent organizations targeted by the proposed amendment.

The ruling led to new protests. 

Since the Constitution’s adoption in 2017, lawmakers and public petitioners have sought to amend it on at least four separate occasions.

Only one of those efforts passed – an amendment to change the electoral system which, analysts said, could favor bigger parties including one backing Prayuth, as well as the opposition Pheu Thai Party.

The change approved in September would create a two-ballot system where voters elect candidates in single-seat constituencies and a second ballot to vote for a political party.

The number of representatives to be directly elected would increase by 50 to 400 while the number of members to be appointed through proportional representation by party-choice votes would fall by 50 to 100.

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