Thai Constitutional Court to decide on govt’s fate yet again

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 20, 2013

UPDATE (Nov 20, 14.30h): The Constitutional Court ruled that the charter amendments to be unlawful, but did not disband the ruling Pheu Thai Party and their coalition partners. The judges took offense at the many irregularities during the parliamentary process (such as MPs using their absent colleagues voter ID cards to vote on their behalf) and the changes to Article 115.5 of the Constitution (see below). Full story and analysis here.

Original article

The current political tensions in Thailand could be prolonged this morning (Wednesday) at 11am as the Constitutional Court yet again decides on the constitutionality of proposed amendments brought forward by the ruling Pheu Thai Party (PT). A rejection could also yet again threaten PT and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s grip on power – something that anti-government protesters are counting on.

Pheu Thai and the Yingluck government are still licking their wounds after a massive backlash earlier this month – including from their own supporter base – for pushing a wide-reaching amnesty bill through parliament, which was struck down in the Senate last week.

That decision has not appeased the opposition, as street-protests led by former deputy prime minister Suthep Thuagsuban of the Democrat Party are still ongoing despite sinking attendances and a failed call for a national strike. Nevertheless, anti-government sentiments – stemming from an emotional antagonism against former prime minister and Yingluck’s brother Thaksin – are high and what was initially meant as a anti-amnesty bill protest has gradually shifted into a straight-up campaign to overthrow the government. Currently, they are collecting signatures to impeach 310 MPs who were in favor of the amnesty bill.

Another cause for ‘hope’ for the anti-government protesters is today’s upcoming verdict from the Constitutional Court on the legality of proposed amendments to the 2007 constitution, in particular the makeup of the Senate. In the draft, the new Senate would be increased from 150 to 200 members, all elected into office instead formerly 76 elected and 74 appointed senators (Article 111 of the Constitution). Critics also accuse the government of amending or abolishing passages that prevent direct relatives of MPs, party members and those who served as MPs in the recent past (Articles 115.5, 115.6 and 115.7, respectively) to run for Senate. Furthermore, the one-term limit of six years (Article 117) would also be done away with.

The complaint was sent in by a group of Democrat MPs and like-minded appointed Senators in September. Their reasoning and demands:

[…] ใช้สิทธิตามรัฐธรรมนูญมาตรา 68 ยื่นคำร้องขอให้ศาลรัฐธรรมนูญวินิจฉัย สั่งระงับการแก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญ […] และให้ยุบ 6 พรรคร่วมรัฐบาลที่ ส.ส.ในสังกัดร่วมลงชื่อเห็นชอบกับการแก้ไข และสั่งเพิกถอนสิทธิเลือกตั้งหัวหน้าพรรคและกรรมการบริหารของ 6 พรรคร่วมรัฐบาลเป็นเวลา 5 ปี

Invoking Article 68 of the Constitution, [they] call on the Constitutional Court to rule and suspend the amendments […] and dissolve the six-party government coalition whose MPs voted in favor of the amendments and bar their party leaders and executives from running in elections for 5 years.

ประเด็นที่กลุ่มผู้ยื่นคำร้อง […] นั่นคือ เรื่องผลประโยชน์ขัดกัน คือ ส.ว.แก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญให้ตัวเองลงสมัคร ส.ว.ครั้งหน้าได้ จากเดิมที่เป็น ส.ว.ติดต่อกันเกิน 1 วาระไม่ได้ รวมทั้งมีการแก้ไขให้ “ลูก เมีย สามี” ลงสมัคร ส.ว.ได้ โดยจะโยงให้เห็นว่าอาจส่งผลให้ระบบตรวจสอบถ่วงดุลมีปัญหา รวมทั้งกระบวนการพิจารณาแก้ไขร่างรัฐธรรมนูญที่ไม่ชอบด้วยระเบียบข้อบังคับการประชุม อย่างการกดบัตรแทนกันของสมาชิกรัฐสภา

The reasonings of the complainants […] are that the Senators are changing the constitution for their own benefit, from running in the next election whereas currently they cannot be in office for more than one term consecutively to allowing children, wives and husbands [and parents of MPs] to run for Senate, also including potential problems with checks and balances and irregularities during the parliamentary debates on the constitutional amendments, such as MPs using voter ID cards of absent colleagues to vote for them.

คำวินิจฉัย”ศาล รธน.” ปัจจัยจบ”ม็อบนกหวีด”?“, Matichon Online, November 15, 2013

โดยน.ส.รสนา [โตสิตระกูล] กล่าวว่า เห็นว่า […] ขัดรัฐธรรมนูญ มาตรา 122 และมาตรา 3 วรรคสอง ที่กำหนดว่า การปฏิบัติหน้าที่ของรัฐสภาต้องเป็นไปตามหลักนิติธรรม […] ดังนั้น จึงเห็นว่า การแก้ไขรัฐธรรมนูญดังกล่าว […] เป็นไปเพื่อให้ทันกับ ส.ว. ที่จะหมดวาระ ในวันที่ 2 มี.ค.2557 ซึ่งจะสามารถลงเลือกตั้งใหม่ได้ทันที

[Appointed Senator] Miss Rosana Tositrakul says “In my opinion […] [the amendments] violate Article 122 and Article 3.2 of the Constitution that say that the duties of the parliament have to follow the rule of law […] thus I think these constitutional amendments […] are for the Senators to run again, since their term ends on March 2, 2014.”

‘รสนาง ยื่นศาลรธน. เบรกลางนติๆวระ3 แก้ที่มาส.ว.“, Thai Rath Online, September 23, 2013

As with previous petitions, the complainants have cited Article 68, stating that anyone can file a petition to the Constitutional Court in case “a person or political party” tries to “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State under this Constitution“, which they clearly see in the amendments. The problem here is that it is ambivalent whether or not the attorney general is required to submit petitions – the majority of the judges think the attorney general is not necessary here and accepted it directly. Another amendment aims to clarify that point.

It has to be mentioned that – not unlike Pheu Thai and the amnesty bill – the appointed Senators are attacking the proposed changes to their chamber with a certain amount of self-righteousness, was it them who also have partly circumvented the restrictions and played the system for their own benefit, as our writer Kaewmala points out:

Poll after poll shows the majority of Thais supporting a fully elected Senate. The 2007 Constitution prohibits spouses, parents and children of sitting MPs from running for the upper house. This means most Thais don’t see the dangers of husband-and-wife parliament as much as the guardians of Thai democracy do. (And one might also ask if appointed Senators are less politically incestuous than the elected ones).

In any case, in February 2011 as many as 67 of 74 appointed senators resigned one day before the end of their six-year term so that they would qualify for another term. One can say that they strictly followed the letter of the Constitution, which imposes a one-term limit. It is clear that these 67 Senators felt a strong sense of duty to serve (by appointment), although the people seem to want to choose the representatives themselves. Is it a coincidence that those making the biggest noise against a fully elected Senate in the just approved constitutional amendment are mostly appointed senators?

Constitutional amendment and the guardians of Thai democracy – Part 2“, by Kaewmala, Siam Voices/Asian Correspondent, October 20, 2013

Furthermore, the government and the red shirts, who were rallying Tuesday evening (and still soul-searching after the amnesty bill debacle), perceive the Constitutional Court to be politicized (also see here), as the preemptive refusal by PT lawmakers to accept the court’s verdict clearly shows.

Nevertheless the nine judges will rule not only on the constitutionality of only a part of a greater catalogue of charter amendments, but also on the fate of Yingluck Shinawatra’s government. As commented in Matichon, one of at least three likely scenarios can take place at 11am: 1) the amendments are constitutional, 2) the amendments are unconstitutional but the parties are not dissolved, instead the individual 312 MPs who voted in favor of the changes face impeachment, 3) the amendments violate Article 68 of the Constitution (see above), the ruling Pheu Thai Party and their 5 coalition parties face dissolution.

Today’s decision by the Constitutional Court is less about the issue about the Senate’s makeup, but yet another watershed moment that could defuse the political polarization a little bit or push the tensions beyond the brink.