AP with the headline “Mixed Thai court ruling defuses potential crisis”:
Thailand’s Constitutional Court defused a potential political crisis Friday by dismissing a complaint that the ruling party’s attempt to amend the constitution amounted to plotting to overthrow the monarchy.
Had the court sustained the complaint, it could have ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s party dissolved just a year after the landslide election that brought it to power. Many feared such a ruling would have provoked mass street protests and possible violence.
Thailand’s constitution was written in 2007 under an interim, unelected government temporarily in power after a military coup. Seeing the charter as undemocratic, lawmakers from Yingluck’s Pheu Thai party wanted to establish a drafting committee to amend it.
In reading the compromise verdict, judge Nurak Marpraneet said the charter could be amended section by section, though it could not be entirely rewritten.
Nurak then said “there are not enough facts to show” that the charter amendment aimed to topple the constitutional monarchy. “What the complainants indicated in the petition was merely speculation,” he said.
Pheu Thai lawmaker Korkaew Pikulthong said the decision set a bad precedent, giving the court “the authority to intervene in the affairs of the legislative branch.”
Nevertheless, the decision “has eased tension among the public, and that’s somewhat acceptable,” said Korkaew, who is also a leader of the allied pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement that occupied downtown Bangkok for two months in 2010.
The Constitutional Court is closely identified with a conservative, elite establishment that has long seen Thaksin’s popularity as a threat to its own power and influence. There are complaints the court wields too much power and that its rulings serve political aims; its judges have removed two Thaksin-allied prime ministers in the last four years, and they have dissolved major political parties and banned top politicians from politics.
The 2007 charter drafted a year after the military coup was approved by Thai voters, but they had no real option if they wished to see constitutional rule and electoral democracy quickly restored.
In concern over Thaksin’s substantial election mandate, the new constitution sought to limit the power of elected politicians, changing the Senate from an all-elected body back to a partly appointed one. It also strengthened the power of independent state agencies and the judiciary.
BP: Korkaew is taking a more concilitatory approach now….*
“This is a ruling that keeps the balance between the opposition and the ruling party,” said Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, associate professor in the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn University.
“I believe that the referendum will allow the whole charter to be amended because of the overwhelming support for this government,” she said, adding, however, that the opposition Democrats should also be pleased because the process could not now be pushed through quickly.
However, Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political-science professor at Chulalongkorn University, said the victory – and accompanying lull in political tensions – may be shortlived. “For now, the court’s ruling has defused tensions – but the structure of conflict has not changed and ultimately, this will add to the build-up of tension in an existential conflict between establishment and anti-establishment forces – personified by Thaksin,” he said.
ABC (Australia) has a similar quote from Montesano:
But Michael Montesano, visiting research fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies in Singapore, told Radio Australia’s Asia Pacific the verdict has lessened that likelihood.
“It means that… the Yingluck government will survive in its current form, and it makes less likely that we will see very large protests in the immediate future.” he said.
“In a broader sense, it means very very little. The fact that the leading opposition party in Thailand, the Democrat party, stooped to this level, to bring such a petition in front of the Court and this has become such an issue, giving permission to the government to find a new way to amend the constitution, really speaks to the deep crisis in Thai Democratic politics.”
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and a former government spokesman, says the ruling has eased political tensions in the short term.
“It seems to be the court has managed to defuse the crisis for the time being. But of course it will depend on all of the different actors in this dispute, whether or not they would like to choose to implement the ruling,” said Wattanayagorn. “If the government accepts this ruling and decides to amend the constitution clause by clause, there should be less trouble, or if they decided to have a referendum first there should be no less problematic. But if not, we could go back to square one.”
To many, it had appeared ludicrous from the start. Now that opinion has been echoed by Thailand’s Constitutional Court.
In a 20-minute statement, it ruled that there was no evidence to support claims that Pheu Thai’s attempt to draft a new constitution was a threat to the Thai king.
As such, there were no grounds for the governing party to be disbanded or for its senior members to be punished.
Those opposing a new constitution fear that it will provide a way for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to return, with his conviction on corruption charges dismissed.
The ruling Friday means the government will need to seek a public referendum to revise the Constitution, said Prinya Devanuramitkul, a professor of law at Thammasart University in Bangkok.
Speaking on Thai television, Suwat Apaipak, a lawyer for the opposing People’s Alliance for Democracy, called the decision an ‘‘acceptable ruling.’’ But Chaturon Chaisang, a senior member of the governing Pheu Thai party, said it raised new questions about how to seek a referendum to revise the Constitution.
“I think the decision is about compromise, since the pressure from the public was too much,” said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, an academic and former Thai diplomat who writes frequently for Asia Sentinel.
“I guess the government will not dare to push for an amendment immediately but may wait a little longer to cool down and allow room for more negotiation between the two sides. You might say the judges succeeded in maintaining the status quo ante,” Pavin said.
BP: BP will blog separately on what are the options for the government in proceeding from now onwards….
*The News (Pakistan) with a related quote on that point:
Thailand expert Thitinan Pongsudhirak, of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, said he was “surprised by the leniency” of the ruling towards the ruling party. “It suggests to me that the Red Shirt pressure did play some part and that the judges already knew that they didn’t have very strong grounds — using the future to decide on the present,” he said.