BANGKOK – Scheduled voting by Thai lawmakers on six proposed amendments to the country’s military-backed constitution was canceled at the last minute Thursday as Parliament voted instead to set up a committee to further consider such proposals.
The action, taken after two days of debate, means any vote on constitutional amendments is likely to be postponed for at least a month, and likely longer.
At least 1,000 protesters pushing for charter reform gathered outside the Parliament building, and were angered when they heard that the voting might be postponed. They issued three demands for changes to the charter, including reform of the monarchy, limits to the powers of the unelected senators, and the election, not appointment, of any constitutional drafting committee’s members.
Protest leaders threatened that they would hold another rally in October if their demands are not met by Sept. 30.
“The people have come here to show their power in front of the Parliament," said protester Nawat Yamwattana. "The members of Parliament and senators must listen to the people’s voices.”
The new parliamentary committee will comprise governing coalition and opposition members of the Lower House, along with the nominally non-partisan members of the Senate, an appointed body.
Reform of the constitution is a major demand of the growing student-led anti-government movement that held a large rally this past weekend in the Thai capital. Their other core demands are for new elections and an end to intimidation of political activists, saying they are needed to strengthen democracy.
The government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha had indicated it also supports some sort of constitutional reform, evidently to appease the protesters and buy some time against possible confrontations.
However, Thai media reports this week indicated that no proposed amendment was likely to be passed because of insufficient support in the Senate, whose members are generally very conservative and hostile to the protesters.
Because voting on the amendments is conducted by a joint sitting of both houses, for any motion to pass it needs the support of at least a third of the 250 senators.
The joint vote by the members of the Lower House and Senate was 431 in favor of setting up the committee and 255 opposed, with 28 abstentions and one vote not cast.
The protests of the last few months have come as Prayuth's government faces broader criticism that it is ineffective and without direction as the economy sputters due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
The government is also under pressure from some influential Thai royalists chagrined that the protesters are seeking unprecedented reforms to the monarchy, a sacrosanct institution to conservatives.
The current charter was written under the auspices of the military junta that took power after a 2014 coup and pushed it through in a referendum in which campaigning for a “no” vote was illegal. Prayuth led that coup, headed the military government and was named prime minister again after last year’s general election, held under the rules laid out by the new charter.
The constitution’s critics say its main aim was to secure the grip on power of the country’s traditional ruling elite — royalists, unelected bureaucrats and the military — by breaking that of political parties.
While there is growing agreement that changes to the constitution are needed, there’s wide divergence over what those changes should be.
Key sections in dispute include the position and privileges of the monarchy — which protesters want to see redefined — and the role and powers of the unelected Senate.
The Senate’s appointed members are seen as hardcore defenders of the status quo, aligned with the present government and greatly influenced by the military. Most controversially, they are allowed to vote in the selection of a prime minister, a provision critics slam as fundamentally anti-democratic.
There were six proposals for charter amendment: one from Prayuth’s governing coalition and five from the opposition.
The one point both sides supported was amending Section 256, which would establish a Constitution Drafting Assembly to write a new charter from scratch. That process could take as long as two years to complete.
Thailand, which has experienced more than a dozen coups, has had 20 constitutions since the end of direct rule by kings in 1932.