First draft of new Thai constitution is aired

Posted in Asia | 19-Apr-07 | Author: Thomas Fuller| Source: International Herald Tribune

A group of Thai Buddhist monks march in front of the Parliament House building in Bangkok during a protest to demand that Buddhism become the state religion in the new constituition, 17 April 2007.

BANGKOK: Thailand unveiled a draft constitution on Wednesday that eliminates direct elections for the country's Senate, bolsters the power of the judiciary and absolves the leaders of the September military coup of any wrongdoing.

Adoption of a new constitution, which would be Thailand's 18th since the abolition of absolute monarchy 75 years ago, is crucial to resolving the country's yearlong political crisis and a prerequisite for a return to democracy.

But the document, which was drafted by a 35-member committee selected by the junta, quickly came under criticism Wednesday as not being democratic enough.

"It's a constitution designed to decrease democracy and the role of the electorate," said Ji Giles Ungpakorn, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University. "It's a quick drafting to try to deal with the past problems in a very narrow way."

The drafters of the constitution will officially present the document in public forums beginning next week after the draft has been published in newspapers.

The country is yearning for political stability at a time when the long-serving king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, the symbol of continuity in the face political turmoil, is ailing.

The document, which was posted Wednesday on the Parliament's Web site, includes several important departures from the 1997 constitution, which the coup leaders rescinded when they seized power in September.

The country would retain its bicameral system of a House of Representatives and Senate, but drafters changed the way the members of each body are selected.

Senators would be appointed by a committee convened by seven top bureaucrats and judges including the heads of the Election Commission and National Countercorruption Commission and the president of the Constitutional Court.

This change would represent a significant shift in power away from the electorate to unelected judges and civil servants.

"They wanted to enhance the judiciary," said Gothom Arya, director of research at Mahidol University and a former election commissioner, referring to the drafters.

"They wanted to readjust the balance of power and give more say to the bureaucracy."

The House of Representatives, which would be reduced to 400 members from 500, would continue to be directly elected, but constituencies would in some cases have several representatives - a change from the one-constituency, one-representative system.

Analysts said the primary goal of the drafters was to diffuse power and avoid the re-emergence of a dominating leader like Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister reviled by the Thai elite and ousted in the September coup.

The draft constitution sets a two-term limit for the prime minister and establishes a special panel including both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition in case of a future political crisis. Also included in the panel are senior judges.

Whereas the 1997 constitution sought to consolidate Thai politics and avoid the fractured coalitions of the 1990s, this document seeks to decentralize power by buttressing the power of bureaucrats and judges.

"They wanted to prevent the likes of Thaksin from returning in the future," said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

Under the new system, if it is adopted, "it's going to be very difficult to come up with a big, dominant party," Thitinan said. "You're going to have coalition governments. It's going to be unwieldy, unstable."

Since discussions on the new constitution began in February many groups have put forth proposals both serious and whimsical.

Buddhist monks protested outside the Parliament building on several occasions, demanding that Buddhism be declared the country's official religion, a delicate issue in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces.

Drafters chose to keep the wording of the 1997 constitution, which says that the government "shall patronize and protect Buddhism and other religions."

After public consultations, the constitution will be submitted to a referendum, the first in Thai history. It is scheduled for September.

The current military-appointed government has promised elections by December.