Thai constitution drafters say Senate to be unelected, critics see hit against democracy

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BANGKOK — A committee appointed by Thailand's military rulers is laying the groundwork for a new method of choosing the country's leaders and lawmakers — and it involves giving voters less power to choose.

Thailand's new 200-member Senate will be not elected directly by voters and the prime minister will no longer have to be an elected lawmaker, according to the committee that is drafting a new constitution.

Although the proposals have to be approved by the military-appointed National Reform Council, the Cabinet and the junta leaders, critics called them a setback for their hopes for a return to democracy, saying it limits the people's power represented in Parliament.

Drafting of the new constitution is being carried out by a 36-person committee picked by the junta after it overthrew a civilian government and abolished the last charter in a coup last May.

The committee on Thursday agreed that under the new constitution the prime minister, who must receive more than half of the votes from the entire House of Representatives, does not have to be an elected lawmaker, in case of a crisis.

The drafters agreed that "there should be an option in case the House of Representatives sees that there really is a crisis, under which an outsider who is acceptable from every side can serve as the prime minister to successfully solve the problem," Kamnoon Sidhisamarn, the committee's spokesman, told reporters.

The committee resolved that prime ministers can only serve for two consecutive terms.

Senators will be chosen from pools of candidates, including former premiers, ex-military leaders and representatives of different professions, another committee spokesman, Lertrat Ratanavanich, said Wednesday. They can only serve one six-year term.

Under the last constitution, half of the 150-member Senate was directly elected and the rest appointed.

Analysts said the changes are designed to limit the power of elected politicians, following years of landslide electoral triumphs by parties allied with former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup.

The power struggle between the military-backed upper and middle classes and Thaksin's supporters has fueled a political conflict that has often turned violent in the past decade.

Thaksin's sister, former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, led her Pheu Thai Party to a landslide victory in 2011.

"There's a likelihood that the Pheu Thai Party will win again once there's an election, so they are designing the constitution to do whatever it takes to limit the power in Parliament of the elected politicians," said Kan Yeunyong, executive director of the Bangkok-based think tank Siam Intelligence Unit.

The constitutional drafting committee is scheduled to finish its draft in April.

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