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Thailand's National Reform Council is expected to pass a new constitution on Sunday, clearing the way for a referendum. But even its drafters admit the charter is undemocratic. Bastian Hartig reports from Bangkok.
There are many bones of contention to Thailand's draft constitution, but none incense critics quite like the installation of the National Strategic Reform Committee (NSRC), the so-called "crisis panel." Section 260 allows a select group of 22 members, among them the prime minister, the chiefs of the armed forces and the police, to seize legislative and executive power in times of crisis. It's up to the committee members to decide amongst themselves when exactly such a time of crisis has come.
Political parties across the board have slammed the clause, saying it is undemocratic. "The formation of the NSRC is to maintain the junta's power," the Pheu Thai party of former premier Yingluck Shinawatra, who was ousted in last year's military coup, writes on its website.
Democratic Party leader and former premier Abhisit Vejjajiva has told local media he does not think the crisis panel will be capable of handling political crises in the country like the one that led up to the coup.
Help for a 'sick man'
"Compared to the state-of-emergency regimes of other countries, it is not completely the same thing," Henning Glaser, director of the German-Southeast Asian Center of Excellence for Public Policy and Good Governance at Bangkok's Thammasat University, told DW. "Normally, these state-of-emergency clauses enlarge the elected government's power to meet the demands of the times. Here, the elected government is replaced by a constitutional 'superbody.'"
Even those who drafted the constitution do not deny the charter's democratic shortcomings. "You may call it not fully democratic," General Lertrat Ratanavanich, a member of the Constitution Drafting Committee, told DW. He emphasized, however, that the provision is only meant for crisis situations like the political turmoil in 2010 or 2014, which saw violent street protests between rival political groups in the streets of Bangkok.
Ratanavanich insisted that under normal circumstances, the NSRC would have "no power to intervene in the administration of the country or the power of the government.
"Even if they take action it will be for a very short period," he said. "When the situation becomes normal again, they [the NSRC] will make an announcement to the people and then the government comes back."
The measure is necessary, said Ratanavanich, to put the country back on the path to reform. "Thailand is like a sick man who needs to recover to full strength before we can move forward," the general said. That is why, he added, the NRSC clause is set to expire five years after the draft constitution is adopted.
But there are other parts of the charter that also spark criticism. Out of 200 members of the Senate, 123 will not be elected by the people, but appointed. There are concerns that this could hinder amending the constitution, concerns which Ratanavanich said are unfounded. "The House of Representatives and the Senate have to approve amendments with a two-thirds majority in a joint vote. If most of the MPs are in favor of the amendment they can do it easily, together with the 77 elected senators, most of whom will have an affiliation to some political party," he said.
The two houses of parliament are made up of 650 representatives and senators in total.
Still, the Senate will have the power to block simple laws with its appointed majority. "What is being created here is a hybrid political system," Michael Winzer, director of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Bangkok, told DW. "There are some democratic elements and then there are restricting elements. It shows that the drafters of the constitution do not yet place trust in a full-fledged party democracy."
To Henning Glaser, this comes as no surprise. "From the point of view of established Thai constitutionalism, electoral democracy has always been a certain risk," he said. "But ever since Thaksin Shinawatra challenged the established constitutional system by misusing his electoral mandate, it is increasingly perceived as an acute danger." A danger, Glaser added, that has increased since the 2006 coup when the call for electoral democracy became a grassroots movement. "This shakes Thai society to the very core," Glaser said. "The whole social and political structure is currently being challenged, and no one knows how things are going to play out. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine how to draft a good and lasting constitution."
Ratanavanich, however, is confident that the draft charter will be passed by the NRC on Sunday. He also believes that it will gain the approval of the electorate in a referendum set for January, something many political figures and observers are less sure of. Not least because due to erroneous wording in the draft, a majority of the electorate rather than the majority of votes cast in a referendum would be required for the new constitution to pass. A hurdle that many observers agree is insurmountable.
If this slip-up is remedied in time and the draft charter is accepted, it would be the 20th constitution Thailand has had since 1932.
When asked how long he thought the new constitution would last this time around, even Ratanavanich wouldn't risk a prediction. "We will see," he said with a laugh, "we will see."