Thailand has taken the first step back towards a democratically elected government with the enactment of a new Constitution – the 20th since 1932 – but the jury is still out on whether political stability will return to the kingdom.
Many analysts remain wary because the new charter weakens politicians and their parties, strengthens the military and offers a stronger role for the King in Asean’s second-biggest economy.
“Thai politics in the past decade focused on minimising the influence of powerful politicians like Thaksin Shinawatra,” Siam Intelligence Unit executive director Kan Yuenyong told The Straits Times. “Thus, this Constitution is a result of political negotiations among the political elites.”
Thaksin, a populist leader, was ousted in a military coup in 2006. Since then, Thai politics has been gripped by political instability. The current military junta took over in 2014 after years of political violence on the streets between the pro-Thaksin Red Shirts and the Yellow Shirts controlled by Bangkok’s ruling elite. Thaksin, now living in self-exile in Dubai, and the Red Shirts remain hugely popular in the rural north and north-east of the country, and his proxies have repeatedly been returned to power in succesive polls.
Many view the new charter as a bulwark against the Red Shirts dominating Thai politics again.
One way it will do this, analysts say, is through the mechanism in which “leaders or officials of no morals, ethics and good governance” will be prevented from assuming office. But it isn’t quite clear who will decide the “morals, ethics and good governance” standing of such people.
The charter also paves the way for a 250-seat Senate, or Upper House, to be fully appointed by the military. Previously, the Senate was composed of 150 members, with 76 elected from each province and Bangkok, and 74 appointed from various sectors.
The Constitution was ratified by King Maha Vajiralongkorn last Thursday, the first step towards holding a general election that many expect will take place before the end of next year. Junta head and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army chief, is expected to step down after the next polls.
But this is not certain. Analysts are sceptical that the military will return to its barracks even after the polls, as the military-appointed Senate has been given the ultimate power to pick top officials, including the prime minister.
The outsized role for the military provided for in the charter has led to fears of corruption. “Thai politicians have been notoriously corrupt and shoddy over the years but when they get their chance at power, the men in uniform have proven not to be all that clean,” Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University, wrote in the Bangkok Post last week.
An unexpected development with the new charter was when the King asked for major changes to be made before signing off on it.
These included removing the necessity for the monarch to appoint a regent when he is away, and retaining the royal prerogative to intervene in times of political crises. The latter change reminded analysts of the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who stepped in twice in 1973 and 1992 to resolve critical political deadlocks.
The charter was enacted on Chakri Day, marking the 235th anniversary of King Rama I’s ascension to the throne, which was seen as the new monarch’s desire for an auspicious start to his reign.
It remains to be seen whether the new Constitution will serve as the antidote that Thailand needs for political stability, which its preamble proclaims as its lofty aim.