Thai Draft Constitution Rejected, Delaying Elections to 2017

Royal Palace in BangkokThailand’s military-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) Sunday morning voted 135-105 to reject the controversial draft for what is supposed to become the country’s 20th charter since 1932.
Ironically, the constitution draft was written by a 36-member committee that was equally handpicked by the junta and, as The Nation reveals, “most of those who voted down were military, police, and politicians” aligned with the ruling junta.
As a result, a new committee must now be appointed to write yet another charter draft, delaying elections to mid-2017 – provided a new draft passes a national referendum now tentatively scheduled for late 2016.

The Bangkok Post reports:

The voting began at 10.35am with all 247 NRC members in attendance …
NRC members were called up by name alphabetically to declare verbally to “approve” or “reject” the draft constitution.
Following the vote count, which took less than one hour, [the NRC president] announced the result which saw 135 members vote to reject the draft and 105 vote for it, while seven members abstained.

The report adds:

The rejection of the draft charter was expected following heavy lobbying over the past week, reportedly by NRC members closely linked to the military.

True, the rejection of the controversial draft charter was widely expected after it met strong opposition on virtually all sides of the political divide.
Junta critics, for example, rejected a number of last-minute additions to the draft they alleged were meant to ensure only that the coup-makers could pursue their policies even after a general election.
One drastic provision called for the establishment of an unelected “crisis panel” that would be stacked with members of the military and empowered to seize control from the elected government by taking over executive and legislative powers in the event of “any political crisis that grinds the country to a halt.”
As we commented three weeks ago,

While the rationale behind this “dictatorial” provision (in the ancient Roman usage of the term) may be somewhat comprehensible in the context of Thailand’s most contemporary history … it obviously doesn’t smell much like full-blown democracy.

According to an analysis by the BBC’s Jonathan Head, the provision for a military-dominated crisis panel “outraged even some who might have supported the charter, making rejection in a referendum all the more likely.”
Some NRC members, Head reports from Bangkok, admitted they had voted down the charter as they were “worried that hostility to the constitution would reignite political divisions in the country.” Head goes as far as suggesting that “perhaps the military wanted their charter to fail.”

But not only junta opponents have come out to criticize the draft constitution but also supporters of the military government that have publicly called on the NRC to reject the constitution draft in order to pave the way for more dramatic “reforms before election”. That’s in spite of the chairman of the drafting committee himself conceding that the charter would return to the Thai electorate only “transitional”, not full-fledged democracy Western-style.
The necessity for the junta to remain in power “a bit longer” now – and the option for the military government to pursue more of its controversial reform policies – therefore also helps explain why the rejection of the charter draft is perceived less as a defeat than an acceptable gift not only for conservatives but the military government itself.
Thomas Fuller of the New York Times notes:

The vote was described by some commentators as political theater and contributed to what appears to be growing cynicism in Thailand toward the military’s reign (…) The junta will now appoint another body to start the process of writing a new constitution, a process that keeps the military in power well into 2016.

Fuller quotes Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist and a prominent political commentator, as describing the rejection of the draft charter as a mere “sideshow in the junta’s prolonged and indefinite rule.”
Sangsit Phiriyarangsan, a member of the NRC who voted to pass the constitution draft, went as far as suggesting that the charter was rejected “because of a desire to postpone elections.”
Fuller quotes Sangsit as saying on Thai television:

They are afraid that if an election takes place, it may lead to indefinite chaos. They are in agreement that we should extend the junta’s rule to govern the country.

Khaosod English also suggest that the rejection of the military-backed draft came “under pressure from the military government” itself. When asked why “only three” members of the military voted in favour of the new charter, the chairman of the now-defunct drafting committee replied:

Well … they have to listen to their bosses. It’s normal. It’s natural. We understand each other. Even on the drafting committee, there was one abstention, because he was recently appointed a general. He still has to be in the service. He has to be that way. It’s understandable.

The report adds that the

no-vote was mostly led by hardline, pro-junta members who believe junta chairman Prayuth Chan-ocha should stay in power to complete his mission of national reform prior to allowing public elections.

As controversial as the proposed new constitution was, what remains is that the rejection of the draft will now “leave the kingdom living under military rule for the longest time since 1969.”

Last but not least, Jonathan Head of the BBC also notes the virtually unspeakable “elephant in the room – the looming royal succession,” and even has “some wondering whether Thailand can have an election before the end of the decade.” As it seems to many political observers, these doubts are largely justified.

So what’s next for Thai politics? Not much of a more substantial nature it seems. The Nation has a “tentative timeline” for the country’s complicated journey back to electoral democracy:

By October 6, 2015: A new charter drafting team is set up by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). It will have 180 days to draft a new constitution.
By April 2016: A new charter must be completed.
September 2016: A national referendum takes place to pass the new charter draft. If it passes, a process of drafting organic laws will take around six months.
April 2017: A general election is held if the draft passes the referendum.
If it fails to pass the referendum, another round of drafting will begin or one of the previous Constitutions will be used.

At the end of the day only one thing is certain: Thailand’s return to “democracy” – in whatever shape and form – remains a long and winding road.

UPDATE – According to The Nation, a general election is now expected to be held by June 2017. That’s in almost two years from now and would then be more than three years after the military staged a coup.

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