BANGKOK — A leader of Thailand's military junta has downplayed concerns over a clause in the new constitution that will allow an unelected Prime Minister to take office.
Contrary to previous 'permanent' constitutions in recent decades, the new charter, which is being debated by the junta's reform council this week, will not explicitly require Prime Ministers to be elected Members of Parliament. The current draft only stipulates that a Prime Minister be appointed by a majority of MPs.
According to Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan, deputy chairman of the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the clause is meant to "open a channel" for MPs to select an "appropriate or neutral" individual to serve as Prime Minister in the event of a political deadlock.
The National Reform Council (NRC) debating the new charter at Parliament House on 21 April 2015.
He told reporters he believes MPs will not resort to appointing an unelected Prime Minister unless it is absolutely necessary to do so.
"I think it is not a big deal at all," said Gen. Prawit, who also serves as Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister. "Normally, MPs will just select MPs from political parties [to be Prime Minister]."
The clause is seen as a victory for the conservative movement that campaigned against the elected government toppled in the May 2014 coup d'etat. Ushering in an unelected "outsider" Prime Minister was one of the protesters' chief demands.
In May 2014, the movement’s leaders asked the Senate to unilaterally appoint an “outsider” PM after Yingluck Shinawatra was ousted in a court ruling. The Senate refused, prompting the anti-government protesters to prepare for a "Final Battle" to topple the government. The military stepped in and staged a coup several days later.
After seizing power, the junta dissolved the 2007 charter and appointed the Constitutional Drafting Committee (CDC) to write a new one. Their draft is currently being debated by the junta-appointed National Reform Council (NRC) this week. The NRC has the authority to suggest amendments to the draft, which is expected to be finalized by September of this year.
Critics say the current draft will weaken democratic institutions and political parties in Thailand. In addition to allowing for an unelected PM, the new draft calls for an appointed Senate and other poweful unelected "watchdog" agencies.
Speaking at the debate, NRC member Direk Tuengfang said he disagrees with the idea of "unelected Prime Minister."
"No one will believe you that such open-ended language will solve any crisis," Direk said. "It will only open a special opportunity to pressure the parliament. In the end, we will have Prime Ministers who do not come from elections by the people."
He also urged the CDC to make the Senate fully-elected, and warned that the current draft of the constitution risks inviting more political conflicts and protests.
"I can predict for you that if this constitution is enacted, in a few years time, there will be a coup d'etat again. We will be stuck in this cycle. Why don't we just do the right thing? If we are to give so much power to the Senate, we should make the Senate come from the people. Therefore, I want the CDC to walk in the right direction," Direk said.
For much of the past decade, Thailand has been locked in a power struggle between mostly rural supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and traditional elite in Bangkok.