Thailand adopted a temporary constitution on Tuesday, taking its first step toward the slow return of electoral democracy after two months of military rule. But the charter's clauses allow the ruling junta to continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office.
The 48-article charter was announced on television after being endorsed by the king and posted on the website of the Royal Gazette, where new laws must be published. Its enactment is mostly a formality to carry out previously announced plans for drafting a permanent constitution and forming an interim legislature. The temporary constitution will allow an interim legislature and Cabinet to begin governing the country in September.
The army overthrew an elected government in a May 22 coup, citing the need to end months of political conflict. It has said it hopes to have a new election by October 2015.
Critics charge that the army plans to make the permanent constitution less democratic by reducing the power of elected politicians and increasing the number of appointed legislators, with the goal of allowing the conservative, royalist ruling elite to retain power.
The coup was rooted in divisions that have wracked Thailand since 2006, when former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was toppled by a military coup after being accused of corruption, abuse of power and disrespect for King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Since then, his supporters and opponents have battled for power.
Although the interim charter is supposed to pave the way for civilian rule, it gives the junta what amounts to supreme power over political developments. It also legalizes all actions it has taken since the coup, as well as the takeover itself.
Article 44 of the charter allows the junta leader "to order, suspend or do any actions he sees necessary for the benefits of the reforms, the unity and reconciliation of people in the country, or to prevent, suspend or suppress any actions that will destroy the peace and order, the national security and monarchy, the country's economy or the country's governance, no matter if such actions are taking place in or outside the kingdom." It declares that such actions are automatically legal.
According to the temporary constitution, institutions that will be operating during the interim period include not only a Cabinet and a prime minister, along with a National Legislative Assembly of no more than 220 members, but also a national reform council and a 36-member constitution drafting committee to formulate the new permanent charter. The council, to comprise no more than 250 members, will give recommendations to the committee, and together they will finalize a draft.
Significantly, the document makes no provision for a popular referendum on the permanent charter that will be proposed. Such a vote was taken on the last constitution, drafted under similar circumstances after the 2006 coup, and passed in part due to pressure by the military.
Reflecting concerns repeatedly stated by the junta, the interim charter requires the drafting committee to include several measures in the constitution to fight corruption.
Although the military had said it staged its takeover to restore peace and order, it has increasingly stressed plans to promote morality in politics and other areas of society. Its views closely reflect those of civilian opponents of Thaksin's political machine, including those who staged violent protests against a pro-Thaksin government for the six months prior to the coup.
The junta has shown little tolerance of dissent, arresting people who protest its takeover, warning activists and politicians to keep quiet, and instituting the harshest censorship in decades. It claims to be seeking reconciliation, but its targets are mostly allies of Thaksin and critics of the military.
Thaksin, a former telecommunications billionaire, remains highly popular among the poor in Thailand's north and northeast, and parties controlled by him have won every national election since 2001.
His opponents, including the country's traditional elites, who are tied to the military and the royal palace, bitterly opposed him and sought to remove all traces of Thaksin's political machine from politics. They claim he used money politics to win landslide election victories, boosted especially by the support of the country's rural majority and urban poor, who benefited from his populist policies.
The coup unseated a government that had been led by Thaksin's sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was forced from the prime minister's office earlier in May for abuse of power involving a civil service appointment. Her supporters claim her removal, as well as the coup, were the result of a conspiracy by a traditional ruling class that felt it was losing influence under a democratic system.