The case – circumstances and matter of constitutional amendment
On Thursday 05 July, Thailand’s Constitutional Court began hearing a charter amendment case. The court is set to rule over claims that plans by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party to amend the constitution are a threat to the deeply-revered monarchy. The opposition Democrat Party argues that the formation of a 99-member drafting assembly with the purpose of amending the constitution violates the constitution and that amendments must be done section-by-section within the Parliament. Opposition members also accuse Yingluck’s party of seeking to redraw the country’s charter to enable the return of her brother Thaksin, who was ousted from power in a coup by royalist generals in 2006.
The Constitutional Court will discuss whether the charter amendment bill violates Article 68 of the constitution, which restricts attempts “to overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State”. The clause allows the court to disband political parties to contravene the stipulation. One of the Court’s nine judges withdrew from the case on Thursday after a Pheu Thai lawyer brought up his role in rafting the current constitution. A minimum of five judges is needed for a decision. Proponents of the bill will testify to the court on Thursday while opponents will appear on Friday.
The context - Thaksin and Thaksin
Thailand has been subject to spiraling political tensions since huge anti-Thaksin (Yingluck Shinawatra’s brother) rallies helped topple the tycoon, who draws support from rural and working class “Red Shirts” but is reviled by the Bangkok-based elite and military. On the case, Thaksin’s legal advisor, also a member of Yingluck’s party, told reporters that “there is no action or intention to do anything as it (is) claimed in the complaint”.
Yingluck Shinawatra’s Puea Thai party came to power last year on a wave of Thaksin support following deadly Red Shirt street protests in 2010. The amendment to the constitution was a key part of the party’s election campaign. It has been seen as plans by the party of PM Yingluck Shinawatra to change the constitution to increase the power of elected politicians over appointed judges and bureaucrats.
Thaksin supporters say the court is exceeding its authority while his opponents see the amendments as part of a strategy aimed at allowing him to return four years after fleeing a jail sentence for abuse of power. Any suggestion of a return for Thaksin, who now lives in self-imposed exile to avoid a jail term for corruption, is hugely controversial in Thailand. Last month Yingluck’s party was forced to postpone a parliamentary vote on controversial “reconciliation” proposals strongly opposed by opposition MPs and the Yellow Shirts, who fear they will be used to grant amnesty to Thaksin.
The potential outcomes - The role of the court and the party
The courts have played a leading role in determining Thai political outcomes since 2006, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej called on judges to resolve a pending constitutional crisis. Since then, judges voided an election won by Thaksin’s party, disqualified about 200 politicians linked to him, sentenced him to jail and seized 46 billion baht of his wealth. In 2008, judicial rulings forced two pro-Thaksin premiers from office, making way for the Democrats to take power in a parliamentary vote for the first time in 20 years. The current constitution, drafted by a military-appointed assembly and passed in a referendum without a parliamentary vote, includes a half-appointed Senate.
The Constitutional Court judges have until the end of Friday to announce a verdict or indicate when they will deliver their ruling. If they find that the amendment plans to threaten the monarchy, it could lead to the dissolution of the party, risking a potential fresh wave of unrest in the volatile state. However, Yingluck would remain as Prime Minister even if the party was dissolved because she’s not on the executive committee, and other members would form a new party in 60 days and the existing government could continue to administer the country.
Earlier in the week, PM Yingluck Shinawatra said that she believes the Constitution Court will base its decision on facts in its consideration of the constitutionality of the bill. She refused to say whether the government had contingency plans to handle any problems which might arise following the court’s ruling.
Report: "Thai ruling party at risk as court mulls key case" [Channel News Asia, 05 July 2012]
Report: "Pheu Thai offered lifeline" [Bangkok Post, 03 July 2012]
Report: "Thai Court Opens Hearings on Amending Post-Coup Constitution" [Bloomberg Businessweek, 05 July 2012]