BANGKOK — Thailand's new temporary constitution allows the leader of the ruling junta to become interim prime minister and gives the military government sweeping powers in the run-up to a planned October 2015 election, a senior army official said Wednesday.
The document adopted Tuesday is the first step toward restoring electoral democracy in Thailand, two months after the army took power in a coup, but the junta will continue to hold substantial power even after an interim Cabinet and legislature take office in September.
The new 48-article charter also lays out the process by which a new permanent constitution will be drafted and adopted.
Although the interim charter is supposed to pave the way for civilian rule, it gives the junta — officially called the National Council for Peace and Order — what amounts to supreme power over political developments. It also legalizes all actions the junta has taken since the coup, as well as the takeover itself.
While the charter gives the military rulers almost supreme authority over politics, Wissanu Krea-ngam, a legal adviser to the junta, said Wednesday that the military would handle only peacekeeping and security matters, even though the interim constitution clearly gives it the final word on all important issues.
"There are not any provisions in the interim charter that give the power for the NCPO to oust the Cabinet or the prime minister, as people alleged," Wissanu told reporters. "The NCPO will only exist to share the burdens of the Cabinet on security matters and peacekeeping, so that the Cabinet can run the country without getting distracted with other problems that could arise."
According to deputy army commander Gen. Paiboon Kumchaya, junta leader and army commander in chief Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha can serve as interim prime minister under the new rules.
"Personally, I don't see that Gen. Prayuth lacks any qualifications. At this period, it's like he's already working as the prime minister," Paiboon said. "In the past few months, Gen. Prayuth has been doing the job thoroughly, chairing every meeting by himself and running every ministry smoothly."
Wissanu said that even though the constitution allows Prayuth to become prime minister, it will be up to the National Legislative Assembly to choose the interim premier.
The junta previously said the interim government would work until a general election is held by October 2015.
The new charter's Article 44 gives Prayuth, as junta chief, the power "to order, suspend or do any actions he sees necessary for the benefits of the reforms, the unity and reconciliation of people in the country, or to prevent, suspend or suppress any actions that will destroy the peace and order, the national security and monarchy, the country's economy or the country's governance, no matter if such actions are taking place in or outside the kingdom." It declares that such actions are automatically legal.
The constitution's clauses have raised concerns among critics about the enormous powers granted to the junta chief.
"This gives the power for the NCPO to commit any actions that might contradict or even go beyond the power given under this constitution," said Ekachai Chainuvati, a law lecturer at Bangkok's Siam University. "It states explicitly that he can perform any actions, such as reshuffling civil servants, drafting any laws or even punishing people judicially."
Abhisit Vejjajiva, the leader of the Democrat Party, which is normally aligned with the establishment and the military, called for the junta leader to quickly clarify how he will exercise the power under the constitution's Article 44, in order to "prevent conflict or chaos that could arise."
"While I believe the society can accept the existence of the special powers in case there is going to be any chaos, it is not clear how necessary it is to extend the special authority to include legislative and judicial powers, or to claim that the power will be used for reforms or reconciliation," Abhisit, a former prime minister, wrote in a Facebook post.
The coup on May 22 followed months of deep-rooted political conflict that virtually paralyzed the government.
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