Thai Court Rejects Government Move to Change Formation of Senate

Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled against the government’s attempt to establish a fully elected Senate, arguing the change would undermine its role as a check-and-balance on the lower house.

The nine-member court agreed five to four that the government’s bill breached section 68 of the constitution, which protects against changes that would “overthrow the democratic regime of government,” according to a televised ruling.

The decision may spark a backlash from tens of thousands of government supporters who gathered in Bangkok in recent days to counter street demonstrations from rival groups seeking to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Members of Yingluck’s ruling Pheu Thai party this week questioned the court’s authority to rule on the case.

“Political tension may escalate if lawmakers in the ruling coalition and some senators reject the Constitutional Court’s authority,” Jade Donavanik, dean of the graduate school of law at Bangkok’s Siam University, said by phone. “This would trigger a confrontation between supporters and opponents of the government.”

The benchmark SET Index slid 0.5 percent after the court ruling, reversing an earlier gain, and the baht weakened 0.3 percent against the dollar as of 4:11 p.m. in Bangkok.

The judges also determined in a six-to-three vote that the bill breached the charter on procedural grounds. Opposition lawmakers said they weren’t given enough time to debate the bill and accused ruling party members of voting on behalf of their parliamentary colleagues.

The Constitutional Court rejected a request from opposition lawmakers to dissolve the ruling party for breaching the charter. Yingluck declined to comment on the ruling today.

Elected Senate

The Pheu Thai party is seeking to amend the constitution section-by-section after the same court ruled last year that the government should hold a referendum before overhauling the entire document. The charter, written by a military-appointed assembly after then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted in a 2006 coup, granted generals amnesty for the takeover, made it easier to dissolve political parties and gave judges a role in picking members of the half-appointed Senate.

Thailand had a fully-elected Senate for nine years under the 1997 constitution, according to the Senate’s website. A charter written by a military-appointed assembly after the 2006 coup reinstated an upper house where just over half the members are directly elected.

‘Retrograde Step’

The 150-member body is now composed of 77 members elected from each of the country’s provinces and the capital Bangkok, and a further 73 who are appointed by a committee, according to the Senate’s website. The Pheu Thai-led coalition sought to expand the body to 200 members.

“Going back to the previous constitution that consisted only of elected senators would be a retrograde step,” the court said in its ruling. “The previous Senate with all elected members was a failure and led to political gridlock.”

The Senate last week rejected a bill that would have provided an amnesty for political offenses stretching back to the coup which ousted Thaksin, Yingluck’s brother.

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