Thai Court Requires 2-Tier Referendum to Rewrite Constitution

Wilawan Watcharasakwet
Thai Court Requires 2-Tier Referendum to Rewrite Constitution Thai Senate members attend a joint session with members of the House at the parliament in Bangkok, Nov. 17, 2020.

Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled on Thursday that parliament must take proposed changes to the Constitution for a vote before the people through a two-tiered referendum.

The opposition and a youth-led pro-democracy movement have been pressing for the government of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, a former junta leader and army chief, to overhaul the 2017 charter which, according to its critics, entrenched the military’s power.

“The Constitutional Court ruled in a majority decision that the parliament has a duty and the authority to conduct a rewriting of the Constitution following a referendum of citizens who have power to establish a Constitution – whether or not they want to have an amendment,” the court said in a statement.

“When the draft is done, another referendum must be conducted for the people’s consent.”

The ruling cast doubt on the status of next week’s scheduled vote on a preliminary amendment proposal, which already passed two parliamentary readings, according to lawmakers.

“When the court ruling said there must be a referendum first, we have to discuss in the parliament on March 17 as to how we could interpret it. The current draft could be dropped,” said Paiboon Nititawan, the deputy leader of the ruling Palang Pracharat Party.

During a reading of the amendment on Feb. 9, a parliament vote of 366 to 316 supported seeking a ruling from the Constitutional Court.

After the ruling, an opposition leader said the voting could be carried out and a referendum could follow.

“We can vote and hold it without seeking the king’s signature and then have a referendum,” said Chusak Sirinil, deputy leader of opposition Pheu Thai Party. “If the referendum favors it, we can seek the king’s endorsement and form a new Constitution drafting committee to draft another amendment as the next step.” 

Calls for amended Constitution

Pro-democracy protesters have said that the 2017 Constitution, drafted by lawmakers handpicked by the junta, was tailored to keep Prayuth Chan-o-cha, architect of the 2014 military coup, in power.

The Constitution allows the senate votes to be combined with the lower house votes – a change from the previous charter. The change gave Prayuth the support he needed to be elected prime minister following the March 2019 general election.

Beginning in July 2020, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Bangkok and across the country. They have made three demands – for Prayuth to step down, for the powerful monarchy to be reformed and for the Constitution to be amended.

A day after 10,000 people turned out in August 2020 for what was called the largest anti-government protest in recent years, six leaders of opposition parties submitted a motion calling for the parliament to amend the Constitution.

Since then, the parliament has been working to change Article 256 to unlock requirements that hinder rewriting the Constitution. The preliminary proposal to amend the article would stipulate that 200 new Constitution drafting members be elected from constituencies nationwide, lawmakers said.  

The amendment already in the works would spare sections dealing with the monarchy, according to lawmakers and an academic.

“The two-part referendum … may let us have a new Constitution which is conceived by the people for our future,” Siripan Nogsuan Sawasdee, an associate professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University, said on Facebook. “It will be worth waiting for despite a long wait.”


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