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Thai junta's plan to retain power for 6 years

BANGKOK -- Nearly two years since a coup installed Thailand's military government, its second Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC) released a draft charter on Tuesday that allows the ruling military junta a five-year "transitional period" before full civilian rule is restored.

Meechai Ruchupan, head of Thailand's Constitution Drafting Committee, brandishes a draft of the kingdom's 20th constitution since 1932 in Bangkok on March 29.

     The relevant clause is effective for five years from the next general election, which will not be before July 2017.

     The 500-member lower house is to be elected under a single-ballot constituency system designed to produce more medium-size parties.

     The item most likely to excite controversy, however, is the selection of an enlarged senate, or upper house. Of its 250 members, 244 are to be chosen by a committee appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the junta which took power in May 2014. The selection process to be applied has yet to be set out.

     The remaining six seats in the senate are to be reserved for high-ranking military and members of the security establishment: the supreme commander; chiefs of the army, air force, navy, and police; and the permanent secretary of defense.

     Under Thailand's longest-lasting constitution drafted in 1997, the entire 200-member senate was elected for the first time. Following a coup in 2006, and a new constitution in 2007, the senate was cut back to 150 members, 76 of whom were elected and 74 appointed.

     The NCPO constitution being drafted will be Thailand's 20th since the overthrow of the notionally 'absolute' monarchy in Siam in 1932. There have been 12 successful coups in the same period, and nine failed ones.

     The NCPO draft constitution gives the senate power over five years to "control, monitor and advise the government and speed up the country's reforms." The cabinet will be required to report to the senate on the progress of reform every three months.

     Another controversial clause opens the door to the possibility of an unelected prime minister, which was ruled out by a constitutional reform in 1992. Until the coup of 2006, only elected members of the lower house could be put forward as candidates. The latest draft replaces this with "someone selected by the lower house."

     Some analysts see this as a way for Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, or his proxy, to retain the premiership. Although all political parties will be required to submit the names of up to three candidate prime ministers, during the first five years these lists can be set aside by a majority vote in the lower house followed by endorsement from two-thirds of both houses.

     A new candidate prime minister could in theory be nominated by 50 members of the lower house, but the circumstances in which this would be justified are unclear.

     Some academics believe controversial items in the draft charter have been left deliberately unclear to stifle informed debate.

     "The peace and order that the NCPO is determined to achieve is still not quite there yet," Meechai Ruchupan, head of the CDC, told reporters on Tuesday. His 21-member committee was appointed by the NCPO in October after an earlier body failed.

     "Given that reforms promised to the people are not yet complete, we have to keep on," said Meechai.

     Some observers believe the constitutional strictures are intended to thwart a return to power of any party loyal to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted by the military in 2006.

     Thaksin's parties have won every election they have contested since 2001, and have a particularly strong voter base in northeastern Thailand.

     Thaksin has been prosecuted in absentia and lived almost all the past decade overseas. In recent months, he has been more vocal on the draft constitution. Speaking to the Financial Times in Singapore, he described it as "crazy."

     "I can't imagine that this kind of constitution can be written in this manner in the 21st century," said Thaksin. "It's as if we are in the 18th century."

     Meechai said democracy should be "in the best interests of the people," echoing establishment concerns over potential majoritarian abuse of power.

     The draft constitution will go to a national referendum on Aug. 7 after being approved by the National Legislative Assembly, the unelected parliament. Some 80% of eligible voters are expected to vote, according to the election commission.

     Sombat Thamrongthanyawong, a professor of public administration at the National Institute of Development Administration, said politicians might dislike the proposed constitution but still opt for its adoption and a general election in preference to continuing under the NCPO.

     Sombat said he doubted any party would achieve an outright majority under the new electoral rules being proposed, raising the possibility of a weak elected coalition government unable to effect meaningful reforms. He noted that even with sweeping powers, the junta has struggled with reforms.

     Ayako Toyama, a visiting Japanese fellow at Thailand's Thammasat University, said the draft charter "clearly reflects the military's ambition to stay in power for some time." She agreed that it is likely to pass the referendum because most voters will not want to delay a general election any longer.

     "Some people may even see Myanmar as a role model where a civilian government is about to take over following a military-led transition period," she said.

     The NCPO's unsuccessful first attempt at drafting a new charter was rejected in September by the National Reform Council, a 250-member body appointed by the junta to oversee reforms. The first draft was controversial for a clause allowing the generals to intervene in the event of a political crisis.

     Such an overt clause is missing from the second draft at present, but Toyama notes that Prime Minister Prayuth's sweeping executive powers mean the possibility of some critical final tweaks ahead of the referendum cannot be ruled out.

Nikkei staff writers Hiroshi Kotani and Tamaki Kyozuka contributed to this article.

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