Thai court quashes changes to Senate, spares Pheu Thai Party

Originally published at Siam Voices on November 20, 2013 Thailand's Constitutional Court has ruled that proposed constitutional amendments to allow a fully elected Senate are unlawful, but stopped short of punishing the ruling Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners. The nine-judge court struck down the government's plans to change the Senate, Thailand's upper House, into a fully elected 200-member chamber - compared to the current 76 elected and 74 appointed members - among other new regularities.

In the verdict reading, which started two hours later than scheduled, the judges voted 5:4 the amendments to be in breach of Article 68 of the Constitution, stating that a fully elected senate would indeed "overthrow the democratic regime of government with the King as Head of State". Furthermore, the judges took offense at planned changes that would allow direct relatives of MPs to run for Senate, saying that a "spouse-husband" rule of both chambers would "allow a domination of power". Another major reason for the rejection were technical irregularities in the parliamentary process of the drafts, from wrongly submitted documents to different bodies, to MPs caught voting for their absent colleagues with their voter ID cards. That decision was voted 6:3.

The Constitutional Court strongly voiced its opposition to a "dictatorship of the majority" - the ruling Pheu Thai Party of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has a comfortable majority in parliament with its coalition partners - as it sees the system of checks-and-balances to be compromised by a "total control" of parliament by politicians. Nevertheless, the Court stopped short of dissolving the Pheu Thai Party and its coalition partners, stating that the actions did not constitute grounds for party dissolution (although the court was unclear as to why).

Initial reactions are divided along party lines. Appointed senator Rosana Tositrakul, one of the plaintiffs who brought the case to the court, was reportedly satisfied that the proposed amendments were brought down, but also wants to see the 312 MPs who voted in favor of the changes and Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra "to be held accountable". On the other side, cabinet member and red shirt leader Natthawut Saikua defiantly declared at a red shirt rally at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium that "a new round between democratic forces and extra-constitutional forces has begun." From the government side, interior minister Charupong Ruangsuwan reinforced the party's refusal to accept the verdict (before it has even been delivered), questioning how an all-elected senate could be any worse than a partly appointed one. Prime minister Yingluck herself declined to comment as she walked past reporters with a smile.

While it was spared the worst case scenario, the ruling Pheu Thai Party and the government of Yingluck Shinawatra have suffered another defeat in a short period of time, partly thanks to the same overeager and hamfisted manner they rushed the amnesty bill earlier this month, which was struck down in the Senate after a massive backlash. The government has lost another big legislative playing card for now and may be down, but not entirely out.

Today's verdict also shows again the heavy politicization of the Constitutional Court, hardly hiding its contempt towards elected representatives and the rule of parliament, while the court itself is not without either bias or fault. Citing Article 68, the Court has set a precedent that potentially prohibits any elected government to make any changes to the 2007 Constitution, which was drafted and approved after the military coup of 2006, further prolonging the political polarization Thailand has been suffering since then.