PM likes Constitution just fine when it suits his needs

PM likes Constitution just fine when it suits his needs - The Nation, April 19, 2005
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was spot on when he commented over the weekend that the People’s Constitution was “functioning well” and that there was no need to amend it unless the public so demands. I would say exactly the same thing if I were him.
Yesterday’s front-page headline of the Thai Post explains why...


[2015 note: Like many Thai newspaper articles from the early days of the Thai internet, this article is no longer online. Below is the complete text of the original article.]

PM likes Constitution just fine when it suits his needs

Published on April 19, 2005

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was spot on when he commented over the weekend that the People’s Constitution was “functioning well” and that there was no need to amend it unless the public so demands. I would say exactly the same thing if I were him.

Yesterday’s front-page headline of the Thai Post explains why.

Thaksin was “urged to promote democracy” by initiating a constitutional change that would allow an under-strength opposition to censure him directly. The existing rules require a censure motion against the prime minister to be signed by at least 200 MPs, which means the former telecoms tycoon could retire from politics 15 years from now without a single parliamentary scratch.

The academics making that call were obviously grabbing at straws. Even a complete fool wouldn’t initiate such a change if he were in Thaksin’s position. How nice it must be to pull every government string with opposition MPs virtually unable even to mention your name when attacking administrative failures or deploring enormous interests awarded by the state to companies linked to you-know-who. Accountability is highly overrated. This era, Thais seem to need a leader who is fast, furious and, most important of all, well protected, because his stability and the nation’s are inseparable.

But the point is that this proposal will never go away. No matter how desperate it may seem, it will quickly gain momentum if other constitutional changes are floated. In Thailand, charter amendments are often done as a package, which means if the government or Parliament initiates just one change, a Pandora’s box would be opened.

And among all the proposals being suggested at the moment, the one seeking to make it easier to censure the prime minister makes the most sense. Others would only serve special interests, such as the proposed relaxation of rules limiting political office-holders’ roles or investment in businesses. Thaksin, no matter how popular, would not like to be perceived as backing constitutional changes that would enhance special interests while ignoring ones that would make Thai democracy stronger.

The prime minister would also not want to become involved in a constitutional-amendment game, which, as history shows, could easily evolve into something quite uncontrollable. Debate can provoke emotions, invoke forgotten values and even threaten a government’s position. The “green flag” fever of 1997, which forced Parliament to reluctantly accept the existing charter, drafted by a special assembly, also proved that the spirit of political reform is strongest when disillusionment with the status quo is widespread.

A still-popular prime minister might want to gamble. But Thaksin is apparently smart enough to know that if a constitutional fervour coincides with, say, a major corruption scandal or a downturn in the economy, things could turn pretty nasty for him politically. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh looked fairly comfortable when he took office in 1996, but the financial crisis a year later and the campaign for constitutional reform combined to see him ousted unceremoniously.

Like it or not, no matter how dominant Thai Rak Thai is in politics, when Thailand starts debating constitutional change, it won’t be about what the powers-that-be want. So, Thaksin is doing the right thing - sitting tight, making nice comments about democracy and the present charter and sounding ready to back positive changes advocated by the public. (But the prime minister might have overdone it yesterday when, speaking with his Danish counterpart, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, he claimed that Thailand was a model of democracy and “selling” the ideology to every country. The visiting Danish leader was, however, polite enough not to say, “I thought democracy was not your goal.”)

Thaksin may not be that familiar with constitutional games. But he must have witnessed over previous decades that anyone attempting to alter a charter to protect special interests often ended up with his tail between his legs. That he has ironically benefited from this People’s Charter provides another major motive for a hands-off strategy.

Reformers, meanwhile, will just have to wait and see. Any push for meaningful constitutional amendments would most likely prove futile without government support. We might be getting stuck in a constitutional vacuum. One of the charter’s biggest flaws - the prime minister’s strong shield against parliamentary censure - could possibly be removed if he sees the need to fix its lesser shortcomings. That is unlikely to happen, though, with Thaksin’s statement that this charter was doing fine the strongest hint that he won’t attempt anything risky.

Tulsathit Taptim

Tulsathit Taptim is managing editor of The Nation.
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