Thai referendum to heal country’s diseased politics?

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Bangkok | August 16, 2007 9:05:06 AM IST

Thais will head to their neighbourhood voting stations to take part in the kingdom’s first referendum this Sunday. But few expect the unique exercise in democracy is to heal the country’s deep political rifts.

Some 45 million Thais will be eligible to accept or reject a constitution drafted by a military-appointed committee in the wake of the Sep 19, 2006, coup that ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

The junta that overthrew the popularly elected Thaksin government also annulled Thailand’s 1997 constitution, which was deemed as the most democratic and liberal charter to date.

The military leaders judged a referendum necessary to win the people’s stamp of approval on its proposed replacement charter, Thailand’s 18th since a military coup ended the absolute monarchy in 1932.

The 2007 charter has been drafted to avoid the rise of another Thaksin-like populist premier; so inevitably and unfortunately the referendum is being viewed as a showdown between pro-Thaksin and pro-military camps.

“It’s difficult to oppose the constitution and not look pro-Thaksin and difficult to support it without looking pro-military,” said Jon Ungphakorn, a former senator who was critical of Thaksin’s rule but is now equally critical of the military.

Like most observers, Jon expects the referendum to endorse the military-backed charter, given the less than “free and fair” circumstances that characterize Thailand’s countryside today.

“The constitution is a sham and the referendum will be a fraud,” said anti-coup activist Sant Hatthirat, who points out that martial law is still in force in 36 of Thailand’s 76 provinces. No international observers have been appointed by the government to monitor the referendum and vote-counting process.

With a large military presence in the countryside, and a military-installed government controlling state-run TV and radio stations and the voting apparatus, chances are pretty good that Thailand’s military-approved constitution will get a thumbs-up Sunday.

The sheer speed at which this referendum has been conducted and the complexity of the text favour a yes vote.

Some 19 million copies of the 169-page draft constitution with 309 articles have been distributed to households nationwide for a quick study between August 1 and 19.

Past referendums around the world have allowed their people a much longer study period. Australia, for instance, gave voters a year to decide the pros and cons of becoming a republic in 1999.

Although the draft charter – printed with a yellow cover that just happens to be the colour associated with Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol Adulyadej – has been widely distributed, few Thais are literate enough in legalese to understand it.

“I’m just an elementary school graduate, so how am I supposed to understand something like this?” asked Oonjai, a mini-bus driver in Kalasin province, 420 kilometres north-east of Bangkok. “I’m just waiting for someone to tell me how to vote.”

Someone will no doubt oblige.

Many voters may also approve this charter out of fear of the unknown.

If the 2007 draft charter is rejected, Thailand’s junta has kept the right to replace it with one of the 17 previous constitutions, and chances are good that they will not choose the liberal 1997 charter that allowed Thaksin to come to power and eventually monopolize the country’s political system.

Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications tycoon, first came to power in the 2001 general election on a populist platform and slick campaign gimmicks that won him the backing of the rural poor and disgruntled urban middle class.

A good delivery record on campaign promises won his Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party an overwhelming majority in the 2005 polls, giving Thaksin an unprecedented parliamentary majority that allowed him run roughshod over the opposition and independent bodies established to provide checks and balances to the executive.

Abuse of power eventually led to Thaksin’s downfall, at the hands of the military, last year.

While the 1997 constitution was written to strengthen the political parties against their traditional downfalls, weak and corrupt coalition governments that led to military coups, the 2007 draft charter essentially strengthens the hand of the bureaucracy, including the military, at the expense of the political parties.

There are good points, such as the article that says only 50,000 signatories are needed to propose an amendment to the constitution.

But the new constitution’s pro-military content, especially article 309, which grants an amnesty for coup makers and legitimises the military’s future role as an overseer of Thai politics, deeply worries pro-democracy activists.

“I am certain that this constitution will pass, but I am much more worried about it passing overwhelmingly,” said Jon. “I think to reject the constitution opens the way to a much more democratic future.”

–DPA

(IANS)

 

Thai referendum to heal country’s diseased politics?

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