Thailand's Constitutional Court defused a potential political crisis Friday by dismissing a complaint that the ruling party's attempt to amend the constitution amounted to plotting to overthrow the monarchy.
Had the court sustained the complaint, it could have ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's party dissolved just a year after the landslide election that brought it to power. Many feared such a ruling would have provoked mass street protests and possible violence.
Thailand's constitution was written in 2007 under an interim, unelected government temporarily in power after a military coup. Seeing the charter as undemocratic, lawmakers from Yingluck's Pheu Thai Party wanted to establish a drafting committee to amend it.
In reading the compromise verdict, judge Nurak Marpraneet said the charter could be amended section by section, though it could not be entirely rewritten.
Nurak then said "there are not enough facts to show" that the charter amendment aimed to topple the constitutional monarchy. "What the complainants indicated in the petition was merely speculation," he said.
Test of Thailand's government
The complex legal case was the latest convulsion of a sometimes-violent tug-of-war between allies and adversaries of the exiled billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra, the populist former prime minister who was overthrown six years ago. It also marked one of the biggest tests yet of the stability of the government led by Yingluck, Thaksin's sister, whose election victory was widely viewed as a referendum on Thaksin's rule.
Pheu Thai lawmaker Korkaew Pikulthong said the decision set a bad precedent, giving the court "the authority to intervene in the affairs of the legislative branch."
Nevertheless, the decision "has eased tension among the public, and that's somewhat acceptable," said Korkaew, who is also a leader of the allied pro-Thaksin Red Shirt movement that occupied downtown Bangkok for two months in 2010.
Too much power?
The Constitutional Court is closely identified with a conservative, elite establishment that has long seen Thaksin's popularity as a threat to its own power and influence. There are complaints the court wields too much power and that its rulings serve political aims; its judges have removed two Thaksin-allied prime ministers in the last four years, and they have dissolved major political parties and banned top politicians from politics.
The 2007 charter drafted a year after the military coup was approved by Thai voters, but they had no real option if they wished to see constitutional rule and electoral democracy quickly restored.
In concern over Thaksin's substantial election mandate, the new constitution sought to limit the power of elected politicians, changing the Senate from an all-elected body back to a partly appointed one. It also strengthened the power of independent state agencies and the judiciary.
"This is a system designed by the coup-makers," said Chaturon Chaisang, another senior Pheu Thai member.
The Constitutional Court has "the power to remove the prime minister, dissolve parties they don't like — to overthrow governments they don't like," he said. "That's the problem. That's not democracy ... that's why" the constitution needs to be amended.
Changes to the Constitution
Speaking before the ruling, Wiratana Kalayasiri, a lawmaker from the opposition Democrat Party and one of the complainants in the case, said the issue was that proponents of constitutional change want to redraft the entire document, although the ruling party has not made their intentions clear either way. "The charter only allows the constitution to be amended, but not totally rewritten," he said.
Yingluck's party has so far said it only wants to set up a 99-member drafting committee, and the court case involved changing one amendment that would enable them to begin that process.
Under the terms of Friday's court ruling, the lawmakers who want to amend the charter would have to change the legislation so that it would tackle each section individually, or possibly arrange a voter referendum.
Another complainant, ex-senator Warin Thiemcharas, said after the verdict that he "respected the court's ruling and found all points the court made to be valid. This means I've completed my duty as a complainant."