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Just hours after a parliamentary vote to reduce the power of the appointed Senate failed, a relentless Move Forward Party (MFP) launched a campaign to obtain the 50,000 signatures necessary to hold a public referendum on whether the country should draft a new Constitution.

The Democracy Monument

A 7 September post on Facebook launched the signature drive so that a referendum request can be made to the cabinet in accordance with the Referendum Act B.E. 2564.  Under the Act, cabinet approval is sufficient for a referendum to be staged, precluding the possibility that members of the senate can block the effort.

The campaign proposal states that the 2017 Constitution has been a source of widespread political criticism and conflict over the past 5 years due to the illegitimate manner in which it was promulgated and its many undemocratic provisions, such as the extension of power to unelected institutions and reduction of public rights and liberties.

Organisers note that a Constitutional Court ruling in a case (4/2564) submitted by Paiboon Nititawan, a Palang Pracharat Party (PPRP) lawmaker, has already established that a new charter can be drawn up, provided a public referendum receives sufficient support. 

With this end in mind, MFP members are calling for a referendum to establish public support for the proposition that Thailand should replace the 2017 Constitution with a new charter drafted by committee formed through direct elections.

To cut costs, they plan to hold the referendum in May 2023 as a part of the next general election.

The campaign was launched after a joint parliament sitting failed to pass the first reading of four proposals raised by opposition parties for Constitution amendment.

A proposal put forward by Pheu Thai Party leader Cholnan Srikaew and other party MPs to amend Section 43, which pertains to the rights of individuals and communities, was favourably received by 342 representatives but only 40 senators.

A second request from Cholnan and others to amend the wording of Sections 25, 29, and 34, which pertain to the rights and liberties of individuals, was also favoured by 338 representatives, but only 8 senators.

A third proposal from the same group to change Sections 159 and 170, which pertain to the qualifications and origins of the Prime Minister, met a similar fate, receiving widespread support from the lower house (337)  but little interest from the senate (9).

So did a final proposal submitted by Somchai Srisutthiyakorn, a Seri Ruam Thai Party MP, and backers that called for the amendment of Section 272 to abolish the Senate’s power to join hands in the nomination of the PM.  Although supported by 333 representatives, it was only backed by 23 Senators.

Same destination, different path

The MFP campaign to rein in a seemingly unstoppable Senate will need the support of senators at a later stage.

The 2017 Constitution makes constitutional amendment harder and more complicated than it was under the previous 2007 and 1997 constitutions. Under its terms, the first reading of a proposed change can only pass if it receives at least one-half of the total votes in parliament (375 from both the House of Representatives and the Senate at the maximum). At least one-third of the unelected senators must also pass the motion.

The third reading also requires a majority vote of the parliament. Moreover, that majority must include one-third of the Senate, and 20 percent of all MPs from political parties which do not hold positions as cabinet members, Speaker of the House of Representatives, or Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Asked about the Senate, Parit Wacharasindhu, an MFP member and former MP candidate whose name figures prominently on referendum request, told Prachatai that the campaign was a follow-up to the 4/2564 Constitutional Court ruling which was issued after a joint parliament sitting agreed to the idea of having an elected committee draft a new Constitution.

Parit said the call for a constitutional amendment this time will be different because it will have undergone a referendum, unlike earlier failed efforts.

He added that if the referendum demonstrates that it is the will of the people to draft a new constitution, lawmakers will find it very difficult to refuse.

“I want to invite people to sign their names. The sooner we have 50,000 names, the greater the chance that we will be able to submit it in time for the next election. I understand that many people are weary of signing petitions, but we have to keep moving … to maintain political pressure,” said Parit.

Why target the Senate?

Under the provisions of the 2017 Constitution, the Senate, the upper house of a bicameral legislature, consists of 250 members who are appointed to a five-year term. 

Six seats are reserved for the Supreme Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, the Permanent Secretary for Ministry of Defence, and the Chiefs of the Royal Thai Army, Royal Thai Navy, Royal Thai Air Force, and Royal Thai Police.

The rest were selected by leaders of the junta which overthrew the government in 2014.

They remain in office for five years, overlapping two terms of the parliament. They also take part in the nomination of two PMs, a process which occurs after parliament has been formed.

Senate duties include reviewing legislation approved by the elected lower house, voting for the selection of PM, and overseeing the country’s 20-year national strategy in conjunction with the House of Representatives.  With respect to constitutional amendments, a fixed percentage of the senate must agree. Senators can also ask the parliament speaker to have the Constitutional Court rule on relevant issues.

Critics of the Senate, a body constituted through undemocratic means, contend that it has been given too much power, an argument given weight by the fact that it has already blocked three separate efforts to modify the constitution to reduce Senate power.  All ended in failure, despite arriving at the parliament with tens of thousands signatures. 

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