Opinion: Low stakes for Thai military junta in constitution draft vote

Originally published at Siam Voices on the morning of September 6, 2015

UPDATE (11.00 AM, Sunday, September 6, 2015):
The National Reform Council has REJECTED the constitutional draft with 134 to 105 votes and 7 abstentions. A new constitution has to be drafted and thus a whole new process with an all new committee is set in motion, while the whole timetable to possible future elections will be delayed by at least 6 months. The Thai military junta and the interim constitution (incl. the catch-all Article 44) will still stay in power in the meantime to at least roughly early 2017.

ORIGINAL ARTICLE (Published earlier Sunday morning before NRC vote)

One could say that it’s a sign of dedication if you’re coming to work on a Sunday. Others would say that they have no other choice – which is rather ironic since the very reason they’re currently convening this morning (as of of writing) is about a vote.

The National Reform Committee (NRC) is coming together this Sunday morning to deliberate and vote on the draft for Thailand’s next constitution, a crucial step that decides the political direction of the foreseeable future in the country.

Since the beginning of the year, the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) has been busy penning the country’s charter No. 20 after the previous 2007 version (enacted after the military coup of 2006) was suspended after the military coup of May 2014. They were so busy in fact that they needed another month to put on the finishing touches.

Despite all the polish and trimming (from a 315 article behemoth to ‘just’ 285), there are many members of the NRC who are not entirely happy with many of its contents and have already voiced their opposition to it. Does this mean a possible bump in the road back to democracy in Thailand and a sign of trouble for the military junta (which has appointed all NRC members, by the way), which has kept the whole political discourse strictly in line until now?

The answer is rather simple: it doesn’t really matter for them either way!

On one hand, a positive outcome for the draft would constitutionally enshrine the undemocratic nature of the junta’s ‘reforms’ to Thai politics that enables non-elected elements to intervene any elected government at almost any time. One of these clauses is the recently added Article 260, the “Committee for Reform Strategy and National Reconciliation” – a euphemism for a politburo-style executive committee co-existing for five years alongside an elected government (still with a 4-year term limit) with powers to take over at anytime in a yet-to-be-defined ‘crisis’ situation. Also, this and other bodies would be created to deter any substantial constitutional amendments that could dismantle these bodies.

On the other hand, a ”no” vote would also come in handy for the military junta since the timetable for this whole drafting process – which took round about 8 months – would start anew as stipulated in the interim constitution. We have pointed out several times that an endless loop of drafting and rejecting would technically be possible and this legislative limbo would be the junta’s Groundhog Day. In other words, the military government would be able to prolong their direct rule.

Either way, the stakes are incredibly low for the military junta.

Also, if the NRC members were really concerned about the undemocratic nature of the draft, they wouldn’t and shouldn’t have agreed to take part in this kabuki theater, as this process only creates the illusion of choice and proper process.

Same goes for the public referendum (in case this draft gets passed) scheduled early next year, which decides when (or rather if) the next election is going to be held. But the people’s choice itself could seemingly become a moot point, since the junta’s law experts ‘just’ happen to discover that it is seemingly nearly impossible to even reach a minimum quota of positive votes for the constitution draft thanks to the wording in the interim constitution, unless that hole get patched pretty soon. And even if everything goes smoothly up until that point, the latest suggestion for new elections is for the end of 2016, which is a whole year later than what the junta originally promised.

Either way, we’ll soon know more about where Thailand’s political future goes next – until that most people would have likely woken up on this Sunday morning.