Aug 20, 2007, 2:55 GMT
Bangkok – Thailand’s first-ever referendum has endorsed the country’s 18th constitution that promises to weaken the political party system and strengthen the hand of the bureaucracy and military, initial results showed Monday.
A count of 93 per cent of the ballots cast in Sunday’s plebiscite, found that 58.3 per cent voted yes, 41.7 per cent no and the remainder were invalid, said Election Commission secretary general Sittipol Paveechaikorn.
About 25 million out of 45.6 million eligible voters, or about 55 per cent, participated in the referendum. Official results will be announced by 4 pm Monday, Sittipol said.
But the initial results also show Thailand’s north-eastern region, the most populated and poorest, voting 63 per cent against the charter, which many have seen as a popularity contest between the military and the former populist regime of Thaksin Shinawatra who was deposed by a coup September 19.
‘The military is satisfied with the people’s acceptance of the constitution,’ said Army General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, who heads the junta that ousted Thaksin.
Political analysts, however, said the results indicate that Thailand remains deeply divided.
The north-east was Thaksin’s stronghold during his six years in power between 2001 and 2006, and the region, home to nearly half of Thailand’s population, still supports him and his Thai Rak Tahi Party, observers said.
‘This vote shows that the polarization of Thailand is entrenched,’ said Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies. ‘It signifies a deeply divided country.’
Thailand’s other four regions – Bangkok, the south, the central plains and the north – supported the charter.
The endorsement of the constitution will pave the way for a general election scheduled in December.
Had it been rejected, Thailand’s junta – the self-styled Council of National Security (CNS), would have chosen one of the country’s 17 past constitutions instead.
The September 19 coup discarded Thailand’s 1997 constitution, deemed by many to have been the kingdom’s most liberal and participatory charter to date.
The 1997 charter, however, gave rise to Thaksin, a billionaire populist politician, who became one of the most divisive figures in Thailand’s recent political history.
Thailand has been in political upheaval 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 former 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 over the opposition and independent bodies established by the 1997 charter to provide checks and balances to the executive.
Abuses of power eventually led to Thaksin’s downfall, at the hands of the military, last year. Thaksin, who faces various corruption charges and an arrest warrant in Thailand, is residing in London where he has purchased several properties and the Manchester City football club, which unexpectedly beat Manchester United in a match Sunday.
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 to the new charter, such as the articles that increase the people’s participation in politics.
But the new constitution’s pro-military content, especially article 309, which grants an amnesty for coup makers and legitimizes the military’s future role as a overseer of Thai politics, deeply worries pro-democracy activists.
Opponents to the 2007 charter criticize it as a step backward for Thailand’s political party system, and a revival of the rule of the traditional elite – the bureaucracy, the military and the constitutional monarchy
Thailand votes on junta’s constitution
08.19.07, 6:12 AM ET
BANGKOK, Thailand (Thomson Financial) – Thais went to the polls Sunday to vote on a new constitution proposed by the ruling junta, in a crucial first electoral test for the generals who led last September’s bloodless coup.
Some 45 million eligible voters were 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 premier Thaksin Shinawatra and his ouster in the coup, the referendum was their first chance to vote since the military takeover.
Political analysts say that will make the result as much a verdict on the junta as it is on the constitution.
‘The referendum is about the credibility of coup makers,’ said political analyst Ukrist Pathmanand of Chulalongkorn University.
Election officials say they expect to announce the result late Sunday.
The junta leader, General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, appeared on television early Sunday to urge people to vote.
‘I would like to ask people to come out to vote in the referendum. Today is an important and historic day,’ he said.
Opponents, including Thaksin supporters and democracy advocates, have been campaigning against the charter, warning it will only empower the nation’s bureaucracy and 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.
If voters pass the army-backed charter, it will be Thailand’s 18th constitution over the last 75 years.
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