Opinion: New push for constitutional change faces race against time

Some offers are made to be rejected. That seems to have been the case for the constitution reform proposal presented by the Re-Solution group, which recently fell on its first reading in parliament.

There was, despite Re-Solution’s protests to the contrary, never much doubt about the chances of its passing. The wide-ranging constitutional draft would have, among other things, entirely abolished the Senate — thus instantly making it a non-starter with the senators that would have had to approve it.  It was with little surprise, therefore, that the proposal shared the same fate as the various constitutional reform bills that preceded it.

Indeed, the fact that heated calls for political reform over the past two years has produced only the most miserably inadequate of results — a change in electoral systems — demonstrates the intense difficulty of amending the 2017 constitution. It almost seems futile even to discuss constitutional change any further, after so much ink has been spilled on this topic and so little has been seen in results. With an implacably opposed upper house and a government that barely even pretends to pay lip service to the program of constitutional reform it committed itself to on paper, is there even a point in caring?

Not so fast! Another group wants one more go. The recent charter buzz comes from Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a former election commissioner who is now a member of the Seri Ruam Thai Party. Along with representatives from a number of political parties, activists and academics, Somchai is planning to collect signatures to push yet another constitutional draft to parliament.

There will be no inclusion of sweeping changes to the Thai political system this time. Somchai argues that putting a large number of reforms together in one draft makes rejection more likely. Focus instead on just one key issue: amending Section 272, which allows the Senate to join the House of Representatives in choosing a key prime minister. This, he believes, would make consensus more likely and passage more possible. In other words, no more offers that are made to be rejected.

This proposal to go back to basics is pragmatic and sensible: Section 272 is indeed one of the central causes of conflict in Thai politics today and one of the most undemocratic mechanisms of the 2017 constitution. Had Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha been elected in 2019 solely through a lower house vote, discontent would not be quite so high; his rule reeks of illegitimacy precisely because of the prerequisite senatorial support that made it possible. This is not to suggest, of course, that Section 272 is the only thing wrong with the current charter. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that it is not the best place to start.

But does this proposal, as limited as it is, stand a realistic chance of success? It still faces two key hurdles.

Firstly, while there is a nonzero chance of success, the odds of passage are still long. The last time a proposal to abolish Section 272 was presented to parliament, it received a clear majority in the lower house. 440 MPs, including over one hundred Palang Pracharath MPs (which has benefitted the most from the current rules) voted in favor. However, only 21 senators agreed with the proposal, with 96 objections and 149 abstentions. Given that at least a third of the 250-member Senate must vote in favor for a amendment to pass its first reading, the hefty lower house majority was rendered meaningless.

If PPRP sticks to how it previously voted, any bill seeking to abolish section 272 would likely still receive overwhelming support from both government and opposition MPs. Convincing another sixty senators to change their minds, on the other hand, will be a tall order. Much will ride on the prevailing political atmosphere when the vote Is called. Additionally, even if the bill passes the first reading, it could still be shot down on the second and third readings.

Secondly, this effort to change the constitution faces a race against time. The process of presenting a people-sponsored constitutional amendment bill to parliament is a lengthy process. Somchai intends to collect 50,000 signatures, which must then be verified by the parliamentary staff. Afterwards, the process of going through the three parliamentary readings could take months.

Had all this happened in 2020, there would be a reasonable chance of the process being completed before the next general election. With this process not starting until next year, the political timeline becomes precarious. Rumors of an impending dissolution of parliament has swirled for months. The prime minister insists he will complete his term — the next general election is not due until 2023 — but few see the instability in the ruling party and think all is well with the government. A ‘political accident,’ an irreparable rift among the PPRP’s power brokers, or electoral opportunism: any of these possibilities makes it conceivable that an election could be called some time in 2022.

Should that occur, and Section 272 has not yet been amended, all these efforts would be void. A new parliament would sit, and the Senate will, just like in 2019, join in the selection of the next prime minister. Even if Section 272 were to be abolished afterwards, it would be pointless: this power was granted to the Senate only for five years. Unless another election were to be called before this section expires, there would be no point in its abolishment.

This latest attempt at meaningful constitutional change may perhaps be the most realistic one yet. But given the unfriendly parliamentary arithmetic and a difficult timetable, even this most pragmatic of efforts faces, the likelihood of falling short.


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