Surin Pitsuwan. Pic: AP

Surin Pitsuwan, former secretary-general of ASEAN and Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Democrats, has an op-ed in the Bangkok Post entitled “Serious reform: A seven-point proposal”. Surin states:

There is this illusion that major national reform could be put together by a particular group …

There is also a misguided belief that a reform process could be put together in a tidy and timely manner that would be complete in a short period of time. Put the elements of reform together in a package, tie it up in a colourful ribbon, and voila, it is complete.

Well, the reality of meaningful political reform is far more complicated and untidy than that simplistic wishful thinking.

There is an urgent need to institute the process by which a national, all-inclusive dialogue on political reform can proceed with legitimacy and popular confidence. These seven steps are being carefully considered within the prevailing political situation and existing constitutional and democratic framework and the collective sense of urgency that the Thai people have been articulating.

1. An acceptable and legitimate process. We have to agree on the need for a quiet and coordinated dialogue among all the major protagonists in the Thai body politic.

Disparate elements of reform, one-sided demands, rigid and unyielding claims for exclusive legitimacy to institute and supervise the process of reforms must be carefully examined on the basis of true democratic norms and practices.

[a] It is futile for one side to advance an argument that a winning majority is a licence to defy the law and the sense of decency that the Thai public holds dear. [b] And it is equally unrealistic to expect universal support and acclaim for a group of people, however large or small, to take matters into their own hands and hope that its goodwill and sincerity will be enough to win the national mandate for comprehensive reform.

BP: [a] is for the government and [b] is for the PDRC in case you hadn’t guessed. On the question of an acceptable and legitimate process, that BP agrees with. Surin continues:

2. The process must be based upon the existing constitutional and democratic institutions that are already in place. Short of a military coup, which is determinedly and rightly resisted by the military themselves, and a tearing up of the constitution, and a full blown people’s revolution, which is being viewed with high scepticism in many quarters, Thailand’s reform process must proceed within the existing constitutional framework, in its letter and spirit.

The 2007 Constitution has made it abundantly clear if any political situation could not find prescription in its provisions, then “the constitutional practice in the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State” (Section 7) shall be the guidance for the political impasse. In this case, the recently elected Senate can serve as a Pillar of Legitimacy, acting as parliament in the absence of the elected House of Representatives (Section 132), to any agreed reform and its necessary legislative action.

BP: Well Section 132 states:

During the expiration of the term or the dissolution of the House of Representatives, the Senate shall not hold its sitting except in the following cases:

(1) a sitting at which the Senate shall act as the National Assembly under section 19, section 21, section 22, section 23 and section 189, and the votes taken shall be based on the number of senators;

(2) a sitting at which the Senator shall consider of a person for holding office under the provision of this Constitution;

(3) a sitting at which the Senate shall consider and pass a resolution removing a person from office.

BP: Sections 19, 21, 22, and 23 are regarding succession and Section 189 regarding a declaration of War and each Section specifically mentions that the Senate can act as National Assembly, but these are the only occasions. As the Deputy Democrat leader and even Abhisit have acknowledged, Bills cannot originate from the Senate. If you are going to go beyond this and apply Section 7, you will face legal problems. In BP’s view it should be very limited and then only if you have broad agreement from the government and opposition.

btw, when he refers to Elected Senate, does he mean only Elected Senators or the entire Senate including the 73 Appointed Senators?

Surin continues:

3. An acceptable coordinating mechanism that would synthesise various points of reform which are being promoted by a myriad of groups and organisations from within the government, among the opposition groups, the business community, the media, academic circles and civil society at large.

There seem to be many self-appointed groups working on the reform agenda for the country. But each is working in isolation and exchange, dialogue and coordination on a meaningful platform have not been effective or a blueprint of what specific reforms can be framed and implemented. Once this process is complete, we will have a shared vision of how to restore the democratic framework to move the country forward.

BP: Who then? Elected officials?

Surin continues:

4. The need to identify issues of reform that could be accomplished prior to the next general election and those fundamental, substantive and structural issues, such as the drafting of the new constitution and the amendments of major organic laws — that would have to wait for a more “democratic and representative” political environment.

It is unrealistic to believe that major reforms could be instituted without some link to the sovereignty of the Thai people. While the existing Senate could fulfill some of the emergency functions, it cannot perform all of the legislative power on behalf of the Thai people. A blueprint of specific reforms needs to be drawn up. The details must be shared with the wider public for a wider and deeper deliberation.

BP: This sounds ok.

Surin continues:

5. All political parties and relevant independent and constitutional bodies must commit themselves to or lend endorsement to the agreed set of reforms. This is called a Social Contract that would bind the contending and relevant parties to the package of restructuring of power relations in the Thai state, paving a way for a New Politics that everybody expressly desires. Unless and until this Social Contract is achieved, it is unrealistic to set the new date for the general elections.

BP: New Politics as in the PAD’s New Politics? It is a dream to expect everyone to agree. If we were to have a referendum, there would be not be 100% endorsement. Likewise, we can’t expect all sides to agree on the outcome. We are not going to get this agreement.

Surin continues:

6. The interim government empowered to do the overall reform shall have the legitimate power to put in place all agreed elements of reform (Social Contract in Point 5), including the drafting of the new Constitution and its organic laws.

This government would just serve as another “caretaker government” with limited power, with no major policy initiative and no action that would commit and bind the future government.

Its only role is to steer the reform efforts through the new full parliament, with the House of Representatives and the Senate, which shall have full legitimacy to undertake the overall restructuring of the power relations according to the new constitution and organic laws.

This government, ideally, should be a “national government” with all political parties included, as a result of the next election, whose date shall be specified based on a national consensus as prescribed above. It shall only last until the agreed national reform agenda is complete. This could take one to one and a half years after the first general election.

BP: A one-year reform government is something that Puea Thai have previously proposed although they have to clarify which reform process they will be campaigning on. Will it be the 99 member (77 elected and 22 appointed by parliament) committee from 2012? Or a new formula? If the government is going to push forward with a July 20 election, it should actually campaign on what it wants to do.

Surin continues:

7. Only after the entire package of reforms has been instituted shall a new general election be called in accordance with the new constitution and a new set of reformed organic laws. The new government shall be a full-term government with full power to initiate policies and programmes within its mandate. Its power will still be limited by the constitutional framework, it will have to listen to the voice of the minority, the opinion of the informed public and with the best and long term interest of the country in mind.

There must be no more attitude that a majority at elections gives full licence to do what it wishes with no regard of the law or a sense of decency in public service.

BP: BP is a little confused, did the Abhisit government listen to the minority when it amended the constitution and changed the electoral system for the House of Representatives? No.  Ultimately, we are going to have a majority to decide on this and it is going to include a referendum and at least one election, but it is important that the minority respect the vote of the majority. This is something that has been sorely lacking; not the other way around.