BANGKOK -- Thailand’s Constitutional Court ruled Friday in favor of plans by the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to move ahead with constitutional reform . The court’s decision has eased political pressure that had been building ahead of the ruling, with pro-government groups threatening mass demonstrations if the court had ruled to halt a constitutional amendment bill before parliament.
In a decision broadcast on national radio and television, Thailand’s constitutional court Friday upheld the government’s right to move ahead with amendments to the 2007 constitution, saying the changes would not pose a threat to Thailand’s political system. The decision was made under tight security with hundreds of police deployed amid fears that violence would follow the ruling.
Petitioners to the court had called for a halt in the final reading of a parliamentary bill to set up a constitutional assembly to amend the constitution. They argued the changes would pose a threat to Thailand’s constitutional monarchy headed by revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Supporters of the bill have dismissed their claims.
The 2007 constitution was drafted by a military-appointed national assembly after the 2006 coup against former prime minister Thaksin Shianwatra, who is Prime Minister Yingluck's older brother. Pro-government supporters charge the current constitution is not democratic because it was drafted by the military-backed government.
Analysts said the ruling also appeared to strengthen the court’s role, because while it dismissed the appeal to halt the constitutional reforms, the court also ruled that fresh petitions may be made by those opposing further changes to the constitution.
Prior to leaving for an ASEAN leaders meeting in Cambodia, Prime Minister Yingluck had called on all parties to respect the court’s verdict.
The verdict came amid rising political tensions. The United Democratic Front Against Dictatorship (UDD) or Red Shirts, as supporters of Thaksin are known, had threatened mass protests if the verdict had not favored the government.
Prime Minister Yingluck’s Pheu Thai Party faced the threat of dissolution if the court had ruled that the government was undermining the role of the monarchy under the constitution. Key Red Shirt leaders had earlier called for action against the judges if the Pheu Thai Party had been dissolved.
In the past, Thai courts had dissolved two previous pro-Thaksin parties over breaches of Thailand’s electoral and constitutional laws.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University and a former government spokesman, says the ruling has eased political tensions in the short term.
“It seems to be the court has managed to defuse the crisis for the time being. But of course it will depend on all of the different actors in this dispute, whether or not they would like to choose to implement the ruling," said Wattanayagorn. "If the government accepts this ruling and decides to amend the constitution clause by clause, there should be less trouble, or if they decided to have a referendum first there should be no less problematic. But if not, we could go back to square one.”
Thailand has faced a fractious political climate in recent years. A crackdown against pro-Thaksin protests in 2010 after two months of demonstrations and the rejection of early elections led to over 90 people being killed and up to 2,000 injured, both civilians and security forces.
Opponents of Thaksin, who has lived overseas since 2008 to avoid a two-year jail term for corruption, claim the government intends to amend the constitution to pave the way for the former leader to return to Thailand without having to face further legal actions.
Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chualongkorn University, says the ruling only offers a respite to tensions between the middle class and the establishment, on one side, and Thaksin, who has built up support among the poor and rural communities, on the other.
“In the big scheme of things, the ruling today is part and parcel of the push back against the challenges and forces posed by Thaksin Shinawatra and his associates over the last decade or so," said Pongsudhirak. "The battle continues. It’s a grand tussle to determine Thailand’s direction. It’s a fight for Thailand’s soul.”
With the verdict in the government’s favor, the final reading of the constitutional amendment bills is due to go before parliament in August, with the formation of a new drafting assembly that will press ahead with changes to the 2007 constitution.