BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Coup central to Thai charter vote

 BBC News

Coup central to Thai charter vote

By Philippa Fogarty
BBC News, Bangkok

A government rally in Bangkok on 13 August 2007

The government has held several rallies urging people to turn out

Across Thailand, people are being urged to go out and vote.

Television adverts, rallies, even slogan-bearing elephants – everywhere they look, Thais are being reminded that Sunday is their chance to participate in the country’s first-ever referendum.

Voters are being asked to reject or endorse a new constitution – if it passes, it will be Thailand’s 18th charter.

“Coming out to vote is a way of using your rights,” Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told a huge rally organised by the government at Bangkok’s Democracy Monument.

“Coming out to vote is a way to help each other in deciding the nation’s future.”

‘Referendum on government’

Deciding the future is likely to appeal to Thais, who have been living with political uncertainty for months.

The saga began in January 2006, when democratically-elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sold his family’s giant telecoms business, Shin Corp.

The family paid no tax on the $1.9bn deal, a fact that triggered massive streets protests in Bangkok.

Mr Thaksin called a snap election, but the opposition boycotted it and it was annulled, causing political deadlock. The military then seized control last September, accusing Mr Thaksin of corruption and abuse of power.

Thai voters give their views on the referendum

In pictures

An interim government was installed, then in May a tribunal found Mr Thaksin guilty of violating electoral laws, temporarily banned him from politics and dissolved his party.

A military-appointed commission wrote a new constitution and if it passes this Sunday’s vote, elections will be held by the end of the year, the government says.

If it fails, the government will pick one of Thailand’s previous charters, but it has not specified which, and the implication is that polls would be delayed.

“This is not a referendum,” said Dr Pasuk Pongpaijitr of Chulalongkorn University. “A referendum is where you ask the people and there is an alternative – but if you say no to this, you don’t know what you get.”

Nor is it really about approving a charter, she added.

“This is not a referendum on the constitution as such – after all, who understands it?”

“The debate now is about whether this government has legitimacy. The referendum is more on the present government and the political situation.”

‘Dictatorship democracy’

Several groups are campaigning hard against the draft.

Former members of Mr Thaksin’s dissolved Thai Rak Thai party have organised rallies around the country.

Thaksin supporter in headband urging people to reject the draft, July 2007

Supporters of Mr Thaksin want the draft to be rejected

In Bangkok and in rural areas where support for the former prime minister remains strong, they have encouraged people to reject what they term “the junta’s constitution”.

Activists have also turned out to protest, using banners and signs to urge people to reject “dictatorship democracy”.

Chotisak Onsung, of the 19 September Network Against the Coup, said he opposed the constitution because of “the way it was drafted, its contents and the background to it”. “I want the voters to say no,” he said.

But Dr Prinya Thaewanarumitkul of Thammasat University’s Law Faculty said many people would back the draft because they wanted the political stability the government has promised its passage would bring.

“People cannot see the future if they vote no,” he said.

“A lot of people want elections and democracy. Therefore they think that if the draft is not that bad, they should accept it now and get the next government to amend it later.”

‘Stable and ethical’

So what of the draft itself? Its authors say it makes political leaders more accountable, introducing checks and balances that would prevent the abuses of which Mr Thaksin was accused.

To that end, the draft limits the term of the prime minister, makes declaring assets compulsory and makes him or her easier to impeach.

It also gives more power to the people, the authors say, by making it easier for them to propose a law or petition for the dismissal of a minister.

A copy of the new constitution

The new constitution, sent to households across Thailand

It would, said Gen Surayud, “allow Thailand’s democracy to have a stable and ethical political system”.

Dr Prinya, however, said the draft was less democratic than the 1997 version that it would replace.

Almost half of all senators would be appointed, not elected. They would be chosen by a committee of judges and bureaucrats – something, he said, that would blur the lines between executive, legislature and judiciary.

He described a change to the electoral process for MPs as a regressive step aimed at preventing strong single-party government – such as that enjoyed by Mr Thaksin.

He also questioned a clause granting an apparently all-encompassing amnesty for activities relating to the coup.

In addition to that, he said, the drafting process was fundamentally flawed.

“The constitution is the supreme law of the country, but the people were not involved in drafting it,” he said. “The constitution’s beginning was not democratic, so this referendum is about legitimising it.”

‘Messy enough’

The referendum needs a simple majority to pass, but, said Dr Pasuk, that would not be good enough for the government.

“If the turn-out is low, the legitimacy is also low,” she said. “A small turn-out with a positive result, for example, would not give legitimacy.”

The government is certainly doing all it can to facilitate voting.

Almost 20 million copies of the draft have been distributed to households around the country. Animated versions are available, as are summaries. Soldiers, students and civil servants have been mobilised to explain it to people.

The day after the vote has been declared a national holiday, so that people have time to travel home and vote. Prices on public transport have been slashed.

Opponents of the draft have argued that it is not a fair fight.

“We have minimal budget to organise a campaign, while the others have media outlets like TV and radio at their disposal,” said Mr Chotisak.

Martial law is also still in place in many provinces loyal to Mr Thaksin. Both campaigns have been trading accusations of vote-buying and dirty tricks.

Mr Chotisak said he remained hopeful. “Even if we lose, I would hope to see only a small gap between no voters and yes voters,” he said.

But one taxi driver expressed what seemed to be a fairly widely held sentiment.

“I’m going to vote yes. It’s been messy enough already. I want elections.”

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Coup central to Thai charter vote



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