Jul 23, 9:53 AM EDT

New constitution gives Thai junta sweeping powers


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BANGKOK (AP) -- Thailand's new temporary constitution that gives the military government sweeping powers in the run-up to a planned October 2015 election also allows the leader of the current ruling junta to become interim prime minister, 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.

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.

The members of the National Legislative Assembly will be appointed by the junta, and in turn will nominate a prime minister. The prime minister will then pick a Cabinet, which must be confirmed by the assembly.

The 48-article charter also lays out the process by which a permanent constitution will be drafted and adopted.

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. The junta previously said the interim government would operate until a general election is held by October 2015, if no problems interfere.

"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."

The temporary constitution mandates that members of the legislative assembly as well as the prime minister and the Cabinet be at least 40 years old and not have been active members of a political party for the past three years.

Critics have charged that the military is seeking to weaken the power of political parties. One idea being discussed is having a portion of the lawmakers be chosen by occupational groups and different social sectors.

Article 44 of the charter 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.

Analysts have raised concerns about the enormous power 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 Article 44 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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