Thai junta’s constitution drafters propose ‘indirectly elected’ Senate

Originally published at Siam Voices on February 27, 2015

The Constitutional Drafting Committee are continuing to re-write the political rule book for a post-coup Thailand. But, like with all the military junta’s government bodies, the claim to “reform” and bring “true democracy” is questionable, as the most recent proposals for an unelected sorry, “indirectly elected” Senate shows.

One of the key elements of Thailand’s military government is the Constitutional Draft Committee (CDC), which is tasked to, well, write a new constitution that lays the legal groundwork for a new elected government (when we actually get there is another matter), the first one since the military coup last May that has temporarily indefinitely suspended electoral democracy. However, just like all other government bodies of the Thai junta – such as the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the rubber-stamping ersatz-parliament, and the National Reform Council (NRC), a rather exclusive group suggesting wide-ranging reforms – the CDC is fully-appointed and of questionable political bias.

Since its nomination in November, the 36-member strong committee has 120 days to accomplish the herculean task to not only write a new charter, but also to have one that (appears to at least) curtail what they call “parliamentarian dictatorship”, which they and their allies accuse the past successfully elected governments associated to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra of, including the last one of his sister Yingluck Shinawatra before it got toppled by the military that is running the country now.

Among the many changes the CDC is currently proposing is the make-up of the Senate, the Upper House next to the House of Representatives. In pre-2014 coup Thailand (and thus post-2006 coup), the 150-member Senate was half-elected and half-appointed. But now, the CDC is suggesting this model instead:

Thailand’s new 200-member Senate (…) will be chosen from pools of candidates, including former premiers, ex-military leaders and representatives of different professions, another committee spokesman, Lertrat Ratanavanich, said Wednesday. They can only serve one six-year term.

Thai constitution drafters say Senate to be unelected“, Associated Press, February 26, 2015

This doesn’t sound as straightforward as the previous system, so how will they be exactly chosen?

The Senate will consist of 200 members, half of whom will be chosen by the council of “experts,” which Bowornsak described as “a diverse group of individuals with expertise and morality about politics, national administration, the judicial system, society, ethnology, and folk wisdom.”

It remains unclear how the council of experts will be chosen.

The other Senators – also appointed – will be chosen from a pool of former high-level politicians and bureaucrats such as prime ministers, military commanders, parliament speakers, judicial leaders, and representatives from other civic organizations.

Junta’s Charter Drafter Clarifies ‘Unelected’ Senate“, Khaosod English, February 26, 2015

In case you’re wondering how this “pool” of candidates is being set up, here’s the complete list:

Senators will be selected from among five categories of people: former prime ministers, former Supreme Court presidents and former parliament presidents; former high-ranking state officials such as military leaders and permanent secreta­ries; heads of legally registered professional organisations; people’s organisations such as labour unions, agricultural co-operatives and academics; and other groups such as lawyers, environmental activists, poverty networks and healthcare experts.

Senators from the first four groups will be selected from among themselves, while those from the fifth will be nominated by a screening committee and selected by the National People’s Assembly and executives and members of local administrative bodies.

CDC agrees to indirect Senate pick“, Bangkok Post, February 26, 2015

So basically a bunch of yet-to-be-defined committees supposedly representing a broad spectrum of the population would be tasked to choose the candidates for the Senate, making it practically fully appointed.

However, the chairman of the CDC, Bowornsak Uwanno (pictured above), does not agree with this notion:

“Certain newspapers and TV channels have identified the new Senate as unelected,” CDC chairman Bowornsak Uwanno said at a press conference today. “It’s not lovely. It’s an inaccurate presentation of news.” (…)

However, the CDC chairman stressed today that elected members of local administrative organizations will be included in the process of selecting senators, because they will be responsible from choosing 100 senators from a list of 200 candidates approved by the panel of “experts.”

“Therefore, accusations that the new Senate is unelected are false,” Bowornsak said.

He also told reporters that some foreign countries have similar parliamentary models, citing France, though he failed to point out that French senators are indirectly elected by a “super-electorate” of elected local and regional officials, whose options are not screened by any unelected panel of professionals.

Junta’s Charter Drafter Clarifies ‘Unelected’ Senate“, Khaosod English, February 26, 2015

OK, so he is saying that it is still a democratic process because the people are voting the local officials, who then, alongside other officials, are going to pick 100 senators pre-selected from a yet-to-be-defined-but-very-likely-appointed “expert” vetting panel, which still leaves the other 100 senators to be chosen in a yet-to-be-defined-but-also-very-likely-appointed fashion.

And how large is that percentage of elected local officials who would be picking the senators? It doesn’t matter, because the military junta has suspended local elections anyways and replaced outgoing officials with – guess what? – appointed ones!

To say that CDC chairman Bowornsak’s argument that the Senate wouldn’t be unelected is shaky at best and at worst rather disingenuous, which makes the description of an “indirectly elected” upper House one hell of a political euphemism.

There’s a certain irony here when you compare this to the efforts during the Yingluck administration to amend the constitution to make the Senate fully-elected again. While the underlying motivations could still be questioned, the principle of a fully-elected Senate was enough of a reason for the Constitutional Court, in what many observers say a politically charged verdict, to outlaw these proposed amendments. Even worse, the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC) – which has recently impeached the already toppled former PM Yingluckwas going after most of the lawmakers involved and is thinking about doing it again.

And now (arguably) the same similarly politically-aligned camp that was against the previous amendments and is now running the country (one striking example is Rosana Tositrakul, back then an appointed senator who petitioned the Constitutional Court and now, surprise, a member of the National Reform Council), is now floating the proposal for a Senate that really isn’t elected at all.

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