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Thailand: Constitutional Referendum to Be Held

(June 5, 2015) The government of Thailand, a country that has been under military rule since a May 2014 coup, announced on May 19, 2015, that it will hold a referendum on a new draft constitution completed in April 2015. The draft law is to replace the interim Constitution adopted in July 2014; the junta, which calls itself the National Council for Peace and Order, abolished the country’s 2007 Constitution soon after taking power. (Emelina Perez, Thailand Government to Hold Referendum on New Constitution, PAPER CHASE (May 20, 2015); Wendy Zeldin, Thailand: Draft of New Constitution Completed, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (May 5, 2015).)

The power to decide on the holding of a referendum lies with the junta and the Cabinet; if the holding of a referendum is approved, “[t]he National Legislative Assembly, the military-dominated interim parliament, would need to amend the temporary constitution now in place … .” (Kaweewit Kaewjinda, Thai Constitution Panel Urges Referendum on Controversial Charter, REUTERS (May 13, 2015).)

The current interim Constitution would have to be amended to insert a clause making a public vote possible before the referendum can be held. (Thailand’s Government Approves Referendum on Constitution, DALLAS MORNING NEWS (May 19, 2015).) In addition, a committee scheduled to meet on August 6, 2015, must approve the new draft charter. Then it would take a minimum of three to six months to hold the plebiscite, in part because copies of the document must be distributed to the public. (Thai General Election to Be Delayed for Referendum, BBC NEWS (May 19, 2015).) This means that the general elections scheduled for mid-2016 would most likely have to be delayed until later in the year. (Id.; Perez, supra.)

Originally, the government had indicated it would not hold a referendum, but would instead solicit the opinions of a thousand respondents, selected from each of Thailand’s 77 provinces. (Thai General Election to Be Delayed for Referendum, supra.) However, it recently changed its stance, apparently based on the recommendation of the junta-appointed, 36-member Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), which had reached agreement that public support for the draft constitution should be sought through a plebiscite. Kamnoon Sittisamarn, CDC spokesman, stated on May 13, “[w]e have a joint opinion on the principle that the new draft constitution should involve the people … . Today the CDC will send a letter for the prime minister to consider.” (Kaweewit Kaewjinda, supra.)

Extensive Proposed Changes to Draft Constitution

On May 26, 2015, two panels of the National Reform Council (NRC), a 250-member advisory body formed in October 2014 to help draft a new constitution, proposed changes to 129 points of the draft constitution; these amendments would reduce its content from 315 sections to about 100. The two panels are the political reform panel and the law/judicial process reform panel. (NRC Sums Up 129 Changes to Charter Draft, BANGKOK POST (May 26, 2015); The National Reform Council, Thailand [home page] (last visited June 3, 2015); Thailand’s Coup Government Forms Reform Council, DAILY MAIL (Oct. 6, 2014).)

The Bangkok Post has published a chart indicating some of the key, controversial changes that the Cabinet and the two panels have proposed be made to the draft document. (NRC Sums Up 129 Changes to Charter Draft, supra.) For example, both the Cabinet and the NRC panels call for removal of the provision that the Prime Minister can seek a confidence motion to thwart a no-confidence debate (§ 181) and for removal of the provision that allows the PM to pass laws without parliamentary approval (§ 182). Where the Cabinet calls for revision of the section that states the PM can be an outsider (i.e., not a Member of Parliament or even a politician), the panels have proposed that the PM must be an MP (§ 173). (Id.)