April 13, 2017 10:00 am JST

Thailand's new constitution favors the monarchy and military

Long-awaited charter gives the junta a guaranteed role in coming years

HIROSHI KOTANI and YUKAKO ONO, Nikkei staff writers

BANGKOK Thailand's 20th constitution since the overthrow of absolute monarchy in 1932 received the royal assent at the propitious time of 3:11 pm on Thursday, April 6, and a general election will follow within 19 months, according to the prime minister.

Thailand's most elaborate constitution-signing ceremony in almost 50 years was staged in the Italianate early 20th-century Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall, and attended by privy councillors, diplomats, the military-appointed cabinet and members of the unelected National Legislative Assembly.

The military's second attempt at a revised constitution was approved by national referendum last August, but later included some adjustments requested in January by King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun. The king acceded following the death on Oct. 13 of his father, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, after a 70-year reign.

Symbolically, the signing was held on Chakri Day, a public holiday honoring the Siamese dynasty founded in 1782 in which King Maha Vajiralongkorn is the 10th king.

Although the constitution was promulgated on the same day, it requires 10 supporting organic laws that will take a maximum of 240 days to draft. There are also other extended periods relating to the formation of political parties and campaigning that must be observed ahead of any general election.

In a televised speech that evening, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha suggested a general election will take place within 19 months -- by November 2018 at the latest. He did not specify a particular date, and said the military government must also handle other major state events beforehand, including the cremation of King Bhumibol and the coronation of his successor. Neither date has yet been set.

The new king said nothing during the ceremony, and an official read a proclamation on his behalf: "May the Thai people be united in following and protecting the constitution to maintain democracy and their sovereignty."

ROYAL TWEAKS In January, the king unexpectedly returned the constitution draft previously approved by referendum to the National Legislative Assembly requesting changes to certain articles relating to his own powers and to the role of his privy council in appointing regents. The changes were made promptly and a revised draft submitted to the palace.

Among the changes, the king will now be able to travel overseas whenever he wishes without the automatic requirement for a regent to be named in his absence. He will also have full control of the appointment of any regent he might consider needed to function on his behalf at any time.

King Bhumibol never traveled abroad after 1967, but King Maha Vajiralongkorn has spent much of his time in recent years in Germany, where his 11-year-old son, Prince Dhipankara Rasmijoti, attends school. The king maintains a residence in Munich.

The various revisions, which were not released for public scrutiny ahead of the signing and promulgation, also relate to the king's authority in times of constitutional crisis, and some consultative provisions were tempered. A provision that stipulated that any issues unaddressed by the constitution would be left to the judgement of a collegial body, which included the chief of the constitutional court, was eliminated. "This means decisions will be pretty much up to the king," a law expert who asked not to be named told the Nikkei Asian Review.

MILITARY POWER INTACT It has been nearly three years since the previous full constitution was abolished in the May 2014 coup. That, too, had been adopted by national referendum in 2007 after Thailand's preceding full constitution was abolished in a coup in 2006.

An interim charter, which includes the controversial Article 44 that gives Prayuth, the former army chief, sweeping powers, had been in effect since July 2014. Under the new constitution, both the junta and the powerful article remain until a government emerges from the next general election.

The new constitution also defines the first five years after the election as a transitional period that will be overseen by a powerful senate handpicked by the current military government with six seats reserved for its most high-ranking officers.

Reform of the election system and party rules are likely to preclude a single party gaining a majority of seats in the lower house. Among other things, this would curb the power of any political party supportive of Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister and billionaire ousted by the military in 2006. Parties answering to him have won all general elections since 2001.

When it took power in 2014, the junta promised to hold a general election by late 2015. The schedule was delayed by what turned into two attempts at drafting a new charter. The first draft, presented in April 2015, was rejected by the military-appointed National Reform Council, and a second draft did not receive parliamentary approval until March 2016.

The second draft was put up for a national referendum in August, and was approved by over 60% of those who voted. The death of King Bhumibol and the unexpected request for adjustments by King Maha Vajiralongkorn set back the promulgation date.

EXTENDED DURATION If the current government remains until late 2018, it will have been in power for around four years -- longer than most previous unelected governments in Thai history. If it has its way, it will also bequeath a 20-year national development plan, which is viewed by critics as an undemocratic obligation. Ordinary Thais and foreign investors, however, retain a largely positive view of the military government, which has clamped down on the politically and socially divisive feuding between opposing political camps. But this has come at the cost of freedom of speech and association.

"The promulgation of the new charter is a step toward the transfer of power to civilian rule, but its content did not live up to the expectations people originally shared after the coup," said Yasuhito Asami, a professor at Hosei University specializing in Thai politics. "The situation is uncertain."

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