Thais vote on military-drafted charter

BANGKOK, Thailand (Reuters) — Thais voted on Sunday in a referendum on a military-drafted constitution analysts say is aimed at
preventing a repeat of the Thaksin Shinawatra era, a single party government led by a charismatic politician.

art.thailand.ballots.afp.jpg

Volunteers prepare ballot boxes on Saturday in Thailand’s Muslim-dominated southern Narathiwat province.

Despite multiple reservations, Thais are expected to approve the draft which Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, appointed after a bloodless
coup ousted the twice-elected Thaksin last year, promises will lead to a general election by the end of the year.

“This is a critical transition for Thailand, so I would like to ask people to go out and vote,” Surayud said on television ahead of the vote.

The government decreed there be no opinion polls ahead of the vote and Surayud and the military council at his back are clearly nervous about
a low turn-out in a poll Thaksin has dubbed “fruit of the poisonous tree” from his exile in London.

Although approval needs only a simple majority, a low turn out would be a serious embarrassment for the government and be seen as an
endorsement of Thaksin, still hugely popular in the countryside which swept him to successive election victories.

But a massive government campaign for the draft, reinforced by 400,000 military personnel to persuade people to vote for it, and the promise of
elections to a parliament which could amend it, are likely to see it through.

Defeat of the draft could deepen the political turmoil which began with street protests against Thaksin, accused of corruption
and abuse of power, 18 months ago, analysts say.

Passage would be a relief to many Thais who have watched the turmoil, which erupted when Thaksin’s family sold its controlling share in the
telecommunications empire he founded for $1.9 billion, tax free, hold back economic growth.

Election Commissioner Sodsri Satayatham said she believed the turnout would exceed 70 percent in a referendum on a charter analysts see as designed to restore rule by the elites challenged by Thaksin, the son of an ethnic Chinese silk merchant.

The constitution would put Thailand back in the era of “managed democracy” of the 1980s under ex-army chief Prem Tinsulanonda, now chief royal adviser and seen by the Thaksin camp as the coup mastermind.

“The most important thing now is for Thais to be reconciled,” Prem said after voting. “I hope the referendum will end misunderstanding among Thais, leading them to a clean and fair election and narrowing their different opinions.”

A majority vote against the constitution, drafted by a council appointed by the military, would allow the military to pick one of Thailand’s previous
17 constitutions, revise it and promulgate it within 30 days.

Coup leader and army chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin said on Friday that if the charter were rejected, it would take him “a couple of days” to pick
his favorite constitution and make amendments to it.

Election officials expect to have a preliminary result of the referendum late on Sunday and an official result on Monday. E-mail to a friend

The Earthtimes

Thailand holds referendum on military-backed charter – Update

Bangkok – Thais went to the polls Sunday to participate in their first-ever referendum to decide the fate of a military-backed constitution that sets the tone for the country’s democratic future. Some 45 million Thais were eligible to vote in the plebiscite but fewer than 70 per cent were expected to cast ballots.

Opinion polls and political analysts predicted that the referendum would endorse the new charter but the margin of victory would be seen as a litmus test for the popularity of the current military-installed regime.

Opponents were hoping that enough people would reject the new constitution – Thailand’s 18th since 1932 when the absolute monarchy was ended – to raise real questions about the military’s return to politics.

Thailand has been under a junta-appointed interim government since September 19, when the army ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra on charges of corruption, undermining the democratic system and dividing the nation.

The coup also annulled Thailand’s 1997 constitution, deemed by many to be have been the kingdom’s most liberal and participatory charter to date.

Analysts predicted the majority of Thai voters would approve the new constitution because they are weary of the political instability the country has suffered over the last two years, much of it concentrated around Thaksin, one of the most divisive figures in Thailand’s recent political history.

“I want the constitution to pass because our country has been in pain for too long,” said Cha, 37 a voter at Sethi Park polling station in Bangkok Sunday morning, who preferred to use his nickname.

Thailand has been under political turmoil since January, 2006, when a strong anti-Thaksin movement took off in Bangkok and built in force until it culminated in the September coup.

Thaksin, a billionaire former telecommunications magnate, came to power on a populist platform in 2001 and proceeded to strengthen his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) Party by merging with other parties and creating a parliamentary majority never before achieved under Thailand’s traditional system of weak coalition governments.

Thaksin and the TRT also managed to undermine the independent bodies established by the 1997 charter to act as checks and balances against a strong executive by manipulating the selection process.

While Thaksin’s autocratic rule and self-serving policies eventually outraged the Bangkok-based Thai elite and middle class, his populist policies and crackdowns on drug lords brought him many supporters in the countryside, especially the impoverished north-east region.

“Thaksin was the only one who stood up against the drug mafia,” said Noi, 53, a restaurant owner in Kalasin town, 500 kilometres north-east of Bangkok.

Thaksin’s so-called “war of drugs” in 2003 claimed the lives of 2,500 alleged methamphetamine dealers, most of them through extra-judical slayings that left a smudge on Thailand’s human rights record but was hugely popular among many people.

“Now that he’s gone the drugs are back. I’m voting against the constitution because it’s a step backwards for democracy,” added Noi, another nickname.

The 1997 constitution, written in the aftermath of a bloody military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in May 1992, aimed primarily at strengthening Thailand’s traditionally weak political party system. Some argue it was too successful.

The 2007 charter has been drafted to prevent the rise of another Thaksin-like leader who can monopolize Thailand’s political system through wealthy and populist policies.

Opponents to the charter, however, argue that it is a step backward for Thailand’s political party system, and said it revives the rule of the traditional elite of the bureaucracy and the military.

The charter includes an amnesty for the coup makers and, more worrisome, a vague clause that seems to give the military the right to interfere in politics in the future.

Thailand votes on junta’s constitution

Thai special police officers stand guard during the distribution of voting material at a city administration office before the country's constitutional referendum in Thailand's Muslim-dominated southern Narathiwat province. Thai voters went to the polls Sunday for the first time since last year's coup to deliver a verdict on a draft constitution that the ruling junta says will pave the way for a return to democracy.(AFP/Madaree Tohlala)

AFP Photo: Thai special police officers stand guard during the distribution of voting material at a city…

BANGKOK (AFP) – Thais went to the polls Sunday to vote on a new constitution proposed by the ruling junta, in a first electoral test for the generals who led last September’s bloodless coup.

Some 45 million eligible voters are being asked to approve or reject the charter, which the military says will pave the way for elections that would restore democracy by December.

For Thais, who have lived through more than a year of turmoil surrounding the ouster of billionaire premier Thaksin Shinawatra, the referendum was their first chance to vote since the military takeover.

But the charter also outlines amnesty for the generals who toppled Thaksin, and political analysts say the result will be a verdict on them as much as it is on the document itself.

“The referendum is about the credibility of coup makers,” said political analyst Ukrist Pathmanand of Chulalongkorn University.

As polling stations opened across the country with the playing of the national anthem, Suphak Saphakkul, a 67-year-old pharmacy owner in Bangkok, was among the first to vote.

“I will vote for it because there are a lot of benefits and rights for the majority of citizens,” Suphak said.

The junta has promised to hold general elections in December and hand power to an elected, civilian government.

But even if elections are held, critics say that the new charter will return control of government to traditional power centres in the military, the bureaucracy and the royal palace.

All three institutions have played key roles in most of Thailand’s turbulent political history, which has seen 24 prime ministers and 18 coups over the last 75 years.

General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the leader of the junta which took over power while Thaksin was on a visit to the United Nations, went on television early Sunday to urge all Thais to vote.

“Today is an important and historic day,” he said. Results from the referendum were expected later Sunday.

Opponents, including Thaksin supporters and democracy advocates, have been campaigning against the charter, warning it will only empower the military at the expense of elected leaders.

They say the new constitution rolls back reforms included in the previous 1997 charter, and could set the stage for fragile coalition governments that would fall under the military’s sway.

It also gives an amnesty to the military over last year’s coup, when the generals tossed out the 1997 constitution, which had been widely hailed as the most democratic the kingdom had ever known.

Army-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has toured the country, including a visit last week to Thaksin’s northern stronghold of Chiang Mai, to urge people to vote in favour of the referendum.

Campaigning has been tilted heavily in the direction of the government, with half the country still under martial law and a new law threatening prison for anyone convicted of obstructing the referendum.

Polls indicate that voters will approve the charter but even if it fails, the junta can impose one of Thailand’s 17 previous constitutions and amend it as they please.

Analysts warned that a rejection could reignite political tensions, delaying elections and injecting fresh uncertainty into Thailand’s wobbly economy.

“If the constitution does not pass, handling the country will be more difficult for the junta,” said another Chulalongkorn political analyst, Panitan Wattanayagorn.

“If people vote no, it is likely that instability, conflict and even turmoil could take place,” Panitan said.

Sutee, a 32-year-old university lecturer who declined to give his full name, said he would vote for the charter with reservations.

“I think it is the wrong perception that if you vote for this, that means you support the junta,” he said. “We vote for democracy.”

Draft constitution referendum orderly underway in Thailand

www.chinaview.cn 2007-08-19 09:28:51

A woman passes by a billboard calling for people’s participation into the forthcoming national referendum in Bangkok, Aug. 18, 2007. Thailand will hold its first-ever national referendum Sunday on a draft constitution.(Xinhua Photo)
Photo Gallery>>>

    By Shen Min  

    BANGKOK, Aug. 19 (Xinhua) — Situation remained peaceful in general as a national referendum on Thailand’s draft constitution beginning Sunday morning was underway at some 88,000 polling stations across the country.

    The voting kicked off at 8 a.m. (0100 GMT) and will end at 4 p.m. (0900 GMT). The unofficial results could be known by 9 p.m. (1400 GMT) on the day, according to the Election Commission.

    A total of some 45.7 million eligible voters across the country’s 76 provinces, nearly one-tenth of them in Bangkok, have been urged by the government to cast their ballots in the referendum, the first of its kind ever held in Thailand’s history.

    At around 10:40 a.m. (0340 GMT), Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont arrived at the 20th pooling station in Phayathai district, central Bangkok, where more than 100 reporters and photographers had been waiting since early morning, to cast his own vote.

    Surayud said the referendum day is a historic moment for the nation, and from what has been witnessed at all pooling stations around the country this morning, the voter turnout by far is satisfactory.

    In nearby Dusit district, President of the Privy Council General Prem Tinsulanonda had cast his vote as early as the voting started.

    Prem, the country’s leading statesman whom anti-coup groups have accused of orchestrating the Sept. 19 coup, said he would like to see the situation remain stable, regardless of the referendum result.

    Sharing spotlight of the day were Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the youngest daughter of ousted PM Thaksin, and Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, one of Thaksin’s major political opponents, who cast their ballots in the morning in Bangkok.

    Situation around the country remained generally peaceful. Although there were reports that some individuals in Ayutthaya province neighboring Bangkok tore their ballots to show anti-coup sentiment, no anti-charter violence has been reported so far.

    The Thai Rak Thai Group, the new banner for Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party after it was ordered to dissolve by a Constitutional Tribunal verdict on May 30 on electoral fraud charges, and the anti-coup group Democratic Alliance Against Dictatorship are expected to hold rallies after the referendum ends at 4 p.m. (0900GMT).

    195,000 police have been deployed to keep law and order for the referendum around Thailand, according to acting deputy national police chief Vichian Pojposri.

    While in the three restive southernmost provinces — Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, and four districts of nearby province of Songkhla, where insurgent violence continued unabated since early 2004, the Fourth Army Area has deployed more than 15,000 soldiers to man the 2,558 polling stations.

    The imminent concern is about the turnout.

    The Surayud government had earlier set the target at more than a half (of the eligible voters), and launched various campaigns nationwide to encourage people to exercise their voting rights, including holding marches and rallies, setting up street billboards, running TV advertisements and creating a theme song.

    Local media reported that provincial and village heads have been pressured to ensure a good turnout, otherwise would face some punishment.

    The government also announced Aug. 20, a Monday, as a public holiday to allow more time for people to travel back to their hometown.

    Judging from the attendance by 9 a.m. (0200 GMT), officials monitoring some polling stations said they were optimistic that the turnout would be around 70 percent.

    The puzzle is that there is no one and nothing so far that has stated what percentage of voter turnout is required to qualify the results as valid.

    If approved, this would become Thailand’s 18th constitution since the kingdom established a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

    After launching a successful coup on Sept. 19, 2006 to oust then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the military-led Council for Democratic Reform (CDR), later transformed into Council for National Security (CNS), abrogated the 1997 Constitution, promulgated an interim constitution on Oct. 1, 2006 and installed the Surayud-led interim government.

    After the military-installed Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) voted unanimously to pass the draft charter on July 6, almost20 million copies of the draft charter were sent to families nationwide for voters’ scrutiny, while about 47 million ballots have been distributed to voters in 927 districts in Thailand’s 76 provinces.

    If the majority vote “yes” to the draft charter, the National Legislative Assembly will submit the charter for Royal endorsement. It will take effect once it is signed by King Bhumibol Aduyaldej and published on the Royal Gazette.

    If the draft is rejected, the CNS said, according to the interim constitution, it would pick one of the 17 older versions of constitution, with some amendments, to act as the new constitution that governs the country.

    It is hard to predict the results, as the Thai public are divided on the draft charter.

    Many of the supporters see its approval as the way to facilitate a new general election by the end of this year, and to return the country back to normal track after two years’ political turbulence, highlighted by the coup.

    Opponents, including pro-Thaksin and anti-coup groups, have branded the draft charter as “the junta’s charter” and a tool of dictatorship, and called on voters to reject it in the referendum.  

 

International Herald Tribune

Thailand holds referendum on 18th constitution, designed to curb politicians

The Associated Press

Published: August 18, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand: Millions of Thais went to the polls Sunday to render judgment on a draft constitution that critics say would be a step backward for democracy but defenders hope will lead the country out of military control.

If a widely expected “yes” vote is delivered by the 45.6 million eligible voters, the generals who have been in power for the past 11 months are bound to hold general elections in December.

A “no” would delay the polls and allow the military to pick any of the country’s previous constitutions and make it the law of the land.

Polling, which began at 8 a.m. (0100GMT) at 88,000 stations around the country, was scheduled to end eight hours later, with unofficial results expected at about 9 p.m. (1400 GMT) Sunday.

Political unrest was not expected, but thousands of troops and police were deployed across southern Thailand to prevent attacks on polling stations by Muslim insurgents.

The choice for the country’s 18th constitution is limited to voting yes or no on a charter designed to curb the power of politicians.

Defenders of the proposed charter concede it is imperfect, but argue it is the best way out of the political stalemate that led the military to seize power last Sept. 19 amid growing unrest over alleged corruption and abuse of power by then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, now in self-exile in Britain.

Critics say the 186-page constitution, which emphasizes checks and balances at the expense of participatory democracy, would perpetuate the behind-the-scenes power the military has wielded in Thailand for decades.

A number of voters appeared to ignore the content of the document, focusing instead on either the election or the coup-makers.

“I voted for the constitution because I want the general election to be held this year,” said Chucheep Onkoksung, a government official, at one of Bangkok’s polling stations.

Samran Kalawin, casting ballots with four members of her family, said, “We voted no because we hate the military coup.”

Thailand has been administered since the bloodless coup under an interim constitution that keeps the military — through its Council for National Security — in control behind the veneer of temporary civilian rule. The government is headed by ex-army chief Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, who made no comment after casting his vote.

Opponents also complain the referendum itself is flawed because a rejection of the military-approved proposal means the generals will then be free to impose a constitution without further consultation with the voters.

The government said it expects 60-70 percent of eligible voters to cast their ballots. The turnout at many Bangkok polling stations was heavy.

More than 26,000 soldiers, police and militia were on alert across the southernmost provinces to protect some 2,600 polling stations against insurgent strikes, army spokesman Col. Akara Thirote said.

Violence in the south has taken the lives of more than 2,400 people in nearly four years of almost daily attacks by separatist rebels.

The new charter would serve as a replacement for a 1997 one popularly dubbed “the people’s constitution” for the extensive public consultation and debate leading to its adoption.

That version attempted to bring democratic reforms to a process that left political parties beholden to local power brokers with little or no ideological allegiances, a system that led to unstable, short-lived coalition governments.

The new one would turn the Senate back into a partly appointed body — the 1997 constitution made it a 100 percent elective office — change electoral procedures in a manner that weakens political parties, and shift several responsibilities — such as appointments to independent government commissions — to the judiciary from the executive branch.

With the proposed draft, “we will get coalition governments which are weak and that will lead to an unending circle of military coups,” Uthai Pimchaichon, a veteran politician and former house speaker, warned.

The impetus to curb the power of elected representatives was a reaction to the 2001-06 administration of Thaksin, who was accused of using his vast personal wealth to secure what some saw as a parliamentary dictatorship.

Advocates of the proposed charter hope it will close some of the loopholes that allowed Thaksin to amass so much power, which he still wields through former party faithfuls and strong popular support in rural areas.

But even many who concede Thaksin’s failings say a more basic power struggle is the issue.

“This draft, if passed, would give priority to the interest of the military and bureaucracy,” said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a Chulalongkorn University political scientist.

“The appointed half of the Senate is going to be packed with bureaucrats and military representatives. It is definitely going to go back to the era where the aristocrats and the elite have more power, the way it was before Thaksin’s rise and fall.”

On the eve of the referendum, the highly respected, one-time Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun told reporters that democracy, only seeded in Thailand 75 years ago, has a long way to go.

“Democracy is not only about having a constitution. Democracy is not only about form,” he said. “For meaningful democracy, we have to look at the roots, at the children’s legs. Thailand still lacks strong roots that can withstand the forces of nature.”

 

Bloomberg

 

 

Thailand to Vote on Junta-Backed Constitution in Referendum

By Anuchit Nguyen

Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) — Thai voters, who gave former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2005, will decide today whether to approve a new constitution proposed by the military junta that overthrew him.

About 45 million Thais are eligible to vote in the referendum. Junta leader Sondhi Boonyarataklin and Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont have urged the constitution’s passage, while Thaksin supporters and anti-junta groups have campaigned for its rejection.

The military is under pressure to restore democracy to reverse slides in business and consumer confidence, which are hovering at five-year lows on the junta-appointed government’s economic policies, including currency controls and foreign- ownership limits. If the draft is rejected, the junta can impose one of Thailand’s past constitutions, which could delay elections indefinitely.

Today “we will know the true opinion of the Thai people,” Worachet Pakeerut, a law lecturer at Thammasat University in Bangkok, said in an interview. “The passage of a constitution won’t guarantee a smooth period ahead of the election. People who vote against the constitution will continue their campaign against the military or may claim the referendum is not clean and fair.”

Thaksin, 58, was Thailand’s first prime minister to win a second consecutive term with his Thai Rak Thai party. While he called and won a snap election in April 2006 to head off opposition to his rule, that vote was annulled on fraud charges and the military ousted him to “restore order.”

Party Disbanded

A military-appointed court this year ruled that Thaksin and his party broke election laws in 2006, and disbanded Thai Rak Thai, banning him and more than 100 of its executives from politics for five years.

“The referendum is a good opportunity for millions of our supporters to let the military dictators know their opposition to the coup,” Chaturon Chaisaeng, one of the banned executives, said in an interview Aug. 3. “The constitution is also a setback for Thailand’s democracy because it will reduce the power of the prime minister and parliamentary members who are directly elected from the Thai people.”

The junta-installed Constitutional Drafting Assembly wants to curb the power of the prime minister because Thaksin and his government abused their authority to prevent investigations by the parliament and other independent agencies, Somkid Lertpaithoon, secretary general of the assembly, said in an interview Aug. 3.

“Excessive abuse of power by the previous government was the biggest reason for the political crisis we had last year,” said Somkid. “This constitution will help curb that and allow easier investigation of the government.”

Limits on Power

The proposed constitution limits the prime minister to two terms and no more than eight years in office. It also says the prime minister must be an elected member of parliament, a clause designed to ease concerns that the Thai military will hold power after the election, Somkid said.

The draft constitution reduces the number of seats in the House of Representatives to 480 from 500 and makes it easier for opposition parties to file censure motions against the prime minister, requiring a fifth of parliament members, or 96, to endorse the motion. In the previous constitution, this required two-fifths, or 200 members.

The Senate will be reduced to 150 senators from 200, half of whom will be elected and half appointed by a commission comprising the heads of the constitutional court, election commission and a national anti-corruption commission, according to the proposal. As in the 1997 constitution, the Senate has the power to remove the prime minister and other ministers.

Political Stalemate

Surayud and Sondhi aim to hold an election by the end of December if the constitution is passed.

“It will probably be approved by a slim margin,” said Jade Donavanik, dean of the law school at Siam University in Bangkok. “It’s not because people like the content, but because they are tired of the political stalemate over the past two years and want to move on.”

The new constitution bans the government from selling more than half of shares in utilities such as telephone and power to private investors.

Thailand’s military leaders, who call themselves the Council for National Security, are investigating billionaire Thaksin, his family and members of his former cabinet for alleged violations in project approvals, share sales and other business deals.

“The military has no intention to stay on power,” army chief Sondhi Boonyarataklin, who led the coup, said Aug. 15 in comments broadcast on state television. “We want to return to our station and role as the guard of national security, not politicians. The new constitution will help us proceed with the goal to hold general elections later this year.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Anuchit Nguyen in Bangkok at anguyen@bloomberg.net .

BBC News

Thailand holds first referendum

Mr Thaksin at Manchester City stadium on 15 August 2007

Mr Thaksin has stayed away from Thailand since the coup

Voting has begun in Thailand’s first ever referendum, in which people will choose whether to accept or reject a new constitution.

The vote, called by the military-backed government that ousted PM Thaksin Shinawatra last year, is also seen as a plebiscite on its seizure of power.

The government has sent copies of the 149-page document to all 18 million homes in Thailand. Mr Thaksin’s supporters want to see the constitution rejected.

They say the charter is the creation of an illegitimate government.

Turnout crucial

Election officials said they expected to announce the results late on Sunday. Coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin urged people to vote, in a live TV address earlier in the day.

Bangkok rally 13 August

Coup central to Thai charter vote

“I would like to ask people to come out to vote in the referendum. Today is an important and historic day,” he said.

The BBC’s Jonathan Head in Bangkok says that anything less than a 50% turnout would be interpreted by many people here as a show of disapproval for last year’s coup.

The constitution is meant to replace the popular 1997 constitution, which the generals tore up after seizing power.

Critics say the new constitution is less democratic, as it proposes that the Senate should be only partly elected.

But the government says there were too many loopholes in the old charter that allowed Mr Thaksin to abuse power.

Its also says the new charter has many other clauses, like those recognising minority rights, which are more liberal than before.

‘No’ campaign

The draft document limits future prime ministers to two terms in office and makes it easier to impeach them.

The military has promised elections to restore democratic government by the end of the year, if the constitution is approved.

But if the charter is rejected, the military has said it will pick any one of Thailand’s 16 previous constitutions instead.

Our correspondent says the government hopes Thais will be persuaded to approve the charter to avoid leaving the country mired in political turmoil.

But there is considerable opposition to it in the countryside of the north and north-east, where poor farmers remain loyal to Mr Thaksin.

His supporters have been campaigning for the constitution to be rejected, arguing that it is illegitimate and less democratic than the one the generals threw out after the coup.

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  1. Hi, I have to agree on you on most points. It seems you really know your stuff. May I ask what is your profession?

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