Thai Referendum Through International Media

The Wall Street Journal Home Page

Thai Constitution Passes, But Thaksin May Still Be Force

Thai Constitution Passes,
But Thaksin May Still Be Force

August 20, 2007

BANGKOK — Thai voters approved a new military-drafted constitution yesterday, paving the way to elections in December, but a large number of “no” votes suggested that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra remains a political force.
A tally, with 95% of the votes counted in a nationwide referendum, showed 58.24% accepting the charter, designed to prevent a repeat of Mr. Thaksin’s powerful single-party style of government.

However, 41.76% rejected it, sending a signal to the military generals who removed Mr. Thaksin in a coup last September that they will struggle to control the makeup of the next administration.

The election commission Web site said turnout was 56.63% among roughly 45 million eligible voters.
A full official result is expected today.

Having pushed for a “yes” vote, the army-appointed post-coup government had been hoping for at least a 60% turnout for what will be Thailand’s 18th constitution in 75 years.

After early exit polls indicated overall approval of the charter — approval of the charter had been widely expected — Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said elections would “definitely be held at the end of the year.” Dec. 16 or Dec. 23 are the most likely election dates.
Chaturon Chaisaeng, a top member of Mr. Thaksin’s now defunct Thai Rak Thai Party, said the former prime minister’s loyalists accepted the referendum’s results even though they had campaigned strongly against it and considered it unfair. Mr. Thaksin’s party was ordered dissolved by the courts in May for electoral fraud last year.

The 186-page charter curbs the role of politicians, emphasizes checks and balances at the expense of participatory democracy, and could perpetuate the behind-the-scenes power the military has wielded in Thailand for decades.

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 Mr. Thaksin, now living in self-exile in Britain. Mr. Thaksin has denied accusations of wrongdoing.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, Thailand’s likely next prime minister, speaking to the TITV television network, said that politicians should join hands after the election to amend the constitution because the results showed that there were a substantial number of people who voted against it.

Analysts said investors would be relieved there had been no major upset in the referendum.

“This is telling the junta that they are going to have trouble at an election and that could mean all kinds of attempts to influence the result — and that’s worrying,” Bangkok-based political analyst Chris Baker said.

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 overhauls to a system 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% 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.


The Wall Street Journal Home Page

A Poor Poll
August 21, 2007

BANGKOK — That Thai voters have collectively approved the military-backed draft constitution was practically a foregone conclusion even before the referendum on Sunday. What was instructive about Thailand’s political prospects was not the numbers in favor of the 2007 constitution, but those who rejected it. The results reveal a deeply divided and polarized country.

The 58-to-42 split among voters who constituted a lower-than-average 57% turnout belies the odds stacked in favor of the constitutional draft from the outset. For weeks leading up to the referendum, the military junta known as the Council for National Security and its appointed interim government under Prime Minister Gen. Surayud Chulanont exercised their incumbency advantages and all instruments of the state to ensure its passage. Soldiers and bureaucrats were sent out en masse nationwide — including a host of provinces still under martial law — to prevent organized opposition and to persuade voters from the grassroots upcountry to Bangkok’s middle class to turn out in favor of the proposed constitution. State-owned television and radio airwaves were dominated by pro-charter talk shows and advertisements. Voters were encouraged to go to the polls for a high turnout, but implicit in the turnout campaigns was the “approval” vote. On the other hand, opponents and critics of the charter were marginalized and branded as Mr. Thaksin’s paid lackeys, their exasperated claims that the draft constitution is elitist and undemocratic virtually ignored.

In view of these staggering odds, voters in the populous but impoverished northeast, the heartland of Mr. Thaksin’s former Thai Rak Thai party that represented more than one third of the national electorate, still rejected the charter by more than 60%. The northern region, also a Thaksin stronghold that comprises another one-fifth of eligible voters, was almost split on the referendum. The relatively more affluent central and Bangkok metropolitan regions, respectively with about 25% and 10% of registered voters, were for the charter just as much as the northeast was against. Almost 90% of votes cast in the less populous south, the Democrat Party’s perennial base, supported the charter.

The conspicuously regionalized outcome bodes ill for the resolution of Thailand’s social polarization and conflict. Mr. Thaksin’s and the Thai Rak Thai’s resilience is unmistakable. While their populist policy platform is gone, it’s far from forgotten. The central region’s and Bangkok’s results denote a preference to move toward the general election and to hasten the departure of the military government. The south is evidently a reliable column for the pro-charter Democrats, who still cannot remake themselves into a national party with broad-based appeal.

The approval of new constitutional rules automatically brings back Thai democracy, with a general election now slated for December this year. But the split pattern of the referendum is likely to be repeated in the election. Despite the deep assets freeze and corruption indictments against him and his family, Mr. Thaksin still looms large over Thai politics, while his dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party is regrouping under the People’s Power Party. The TRT’s reincarnation underlines the coup makers’ inability to put down Mr. Thaksin and his political machine for good. It may also tempt the junta’s chairman, Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, to throw his hat in the electoral ring after his mandatory retirement next month, to see through his unfinished business. The prospect of the junta leader’s aspiration to be an elected minister, perhaps prime minister, could heighten political tensions and exacerbate the ongoing polarization and confrontation in Thai society.

The new constitution will also catapult Thai politics back to its past of unwieldy and fractious coalition governments that never lasted a full four-year term. It will reduce political effectiveness by weakening executive authority and restoring latitude and prerogatives to the conservative bureaucracy, especially the judiciary. Biased against elected politicians and political parties, the 2007 constitution will eliminate the previous party-list system in the lower house of the legislature whereby experts can enter cabinet without contesting in constituency elections. Instead, a gerrymandered set of 80 MPs will be chosen from eight voting zones, diminishing the voice of voters in the north and northeast. The more direct and accountable one-man, one-vote constituency system will be replaced by multi-member constituencies. Party mergers and takeovers — like the ones that made TRT so powerful — will be deterred as they would not take effect until the lower house’s term ends. The military is given a role in “national development,” a constitutional right to acquire “modern weaponry,” and a blanket amnesty for its putsch.

About half of the senate will be appointed by a seven-member select committee of judges and heads of independent accountability-promoting agencies. The senators in turn will select the select committee. This troika — appointed senators, the judiciary and independent agencies such as the National Counter Corruption Commission and the Constitutional Court — are designed to curb the powers of elected representatives and maintain overall control of the political system.

* * *
Thailand now faces three avenues towards its democratic future. The one that has been put in motion by the referendum prioritizes the interests of the military, bureaucracy and monarchy. It is a bureaucracy-driven polity, adapted for the era and demands of globalization. This version of democracy is less democratic and more elitist than the 1997 constitution. Its aims and intentions were contained in most of the charters prior to 1997 and before Mr. Thaksin’s rise and rule. A second version of Thai democracy was that which prevailed under Mr. Thaksin and the popular 1997 constitution. It privileged new business groups who took control and monopolised power through elections. It had a pro-poor, populist agenda that unmasked the underbelly of Thai economic development during which the grassroots electorate was not given its fair share. But it also enabled Mr. Thaksin and his associates to reap conflicts of interests, rents and graft and to commit abuses of power and human rights. The third version is a more people-oriented, bottom-up political order based on the 1997 charter, but without Mr. Thaksin and his corruption and abuses of power.

The fierce struggle between these three versions of Thai democracy is now playing out. The second and third are in an uneasy alliance against the first, which has won the day in the referendum. The promoters of this elitist democracy, however, must adapt to the new tunes of the 21st century and its demands for greater freedoms and a bigger share of wealth and power. Without major concessions, reforms and adjustments, the traditional elite of military, bureaucracy and monarchy will be fighting a losing battle against the forces of history, especially as the reign of Thailand’s revered monarch enters its twilight.

Thailand Approves Constitution

By Luis Ramirez
20 August 2007

Ramirez report (mp3) – Download 516k audio clip
Listen to Ramirez report (mp3) audio clip

Thailand’s rulers say the country will hold elections in December to restore democratic rule following a military coup last year. The announcement came Monday after voters on Sunday approved a new constitution. However, as VOA’s Luis Ramirez reports from Bangkok, a huge number of ‘No’ votes suggests the elections will be hotly contested.

A volunteer shows a ballot paper while counting votes at the end of constitutional referendum in Thailand's restive southern Pattani province, 19 Aug 2007

A volunteer shows a ballot paper while counting votes at the end of constitutional referendum in Thailand’s restive southern Pattani province, 19 Aug 2007

Voters approved the constitution but analysts say the more than 42 percent who voted against it did not give the backers of last year’s military coup the kind of endorsement they hoped to get.

Analysts say the large number of voters who voted ‘No’ shows Thailand remains deeply divided between urban dwellers who oppose ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those in his largely rural base in the north of the country.

Some analysts say it is a good thing that voters approved the constitution because not approving it would have complicated plans to restore democracy.

Some Thais interviewed after the vote say they want to see an end to the turmoil and uncertainty that the country has endured since the start of demonstrations last year that culminated with the September coup.

Narong Natiyum – a resident of central Bangkok – says he voted in favor of the constitution because he says that, in any case, having an elected government in Thailand again will be step forward.

Narong said that everything has been bad for a long time, and that the situation in the country will be better once an election is held.

Thaksin Shinawatra

Thaksin Shinawatra (file photo)

The leaders installed by the military following Mr. Thaksin’s ouster in September 2006 have been working to prevent the former leader from making a comeback. He was deposed while he attended the United Nations in New York in September last year, following months of protests by opponents who accused him of corruption and abuse of power. He has stayed abroad since then.

The document approved Sunday is the 18th constitution that Thailand has had since the country moved from an absolute monarchy to a democracy in 1932. It limits the power of the executive branch by – among other things – limiting the prime minister’s term to no more than eight years.

It also pardons the generals for their role in the 2006 coup.

Thailand’s stock market rose Monday following confirmation that the constitution was approved and the announcement that elections will be held. Officials said the poll would be in mid to late December.


International Herald Tribune

Thaksin says result of Thai national referendum indicates support for his side

The Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand: Ousted and exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra believes a large “no” vote against a military-backed constitution indicates that he still commands support, hoping this will translate into votes for his loyalists in upcoming general elections, his spokesman said Wednesday.

The constitution, drafted by a committee selected by the military, was approved by almost 57 percent of voters in a nationwide referendum Sunday.

But it was knocked back in the country’s poor agricultural northeast, the major stronghold for Thaksin who was ousted in a bloodless coup last September and now lives mostly in England.

“The referendum result indicated strong support for the former Thai Rak Thai party and Thaksin himself,” said Noppadon Pattama, Thaksin’s lawyer and de facto spokesman in Thailand. “He is quite pleased that the people in rural areas disapprove of the change of power by the coup.”

Thaksin was ousted by the military last Sept. 19 amid growing unrest over alleged corruption and abuse of power. A warrant for his arrest was issued earlier this month and the government is preparing to seek his extradition.

Thaksin also urged the current military-backed government to treat him with fairness, adding that legal cases against him should not be filed just to “fulfill political purposes,” Noppadon said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont dismissed concerns that the distribution of the votes indicated lingering divide in the country.

“No, I don’t have any concern about that. By December, the Thai people have to choose a new government. I believe they do understand the difficult time we’ve had for almost two years,” Surayud told reporters during his visit to Malaysia.

Thaksin and his Thai Rak Thai — Thai Love Thai — party had romped to landslide victories that put him solidly into power from 2001 to 2006. Critics charged he was able to use his vast personal wealth — earned in the telecoms sector — to secure what some saw as a parliamentary dictatorship.

Despite the dissolution of his party — and a five-year court-ordered ban on its 111 executive members from taking elective office — Thaksin’s loyalists continue to organize.

More than 440 former members of the disbanded party applied to become members of the little-known Palang Prachachon — or People’s Power party, in what is widely deemed as a takeover to serve as a substitute for the defunct Thai Rak Thai. Of those, more than 200 were former Thai Rak Thai members of Parliament.

“He hopes that those who voted against the constitution will vote for the People’s Power party,” said Noppadon.

Noppadon said that Thaksin would provide political and policy advice but would not hold formal positions in the party.

He has frequently dismissed speculation that his client was engaging in political maneuvering and insisting that he has retired from politics.

Noppadon_ a member of the party_ said he believes the party could win in the upcoming elections and form a new government.

“We are hopeful,” he said. “We have to work hard to convince people that it is the old Thai Rak Thai party.”

Electoral officials have indicated a general election would likely be held in the second half of December. Thaksin has said that he would return to Thailand to face legal charges only after the country has an elected government.

Observers said Sunday’s vote showed the country remains largely divided between Bangkok residents, who staged months of protests calling for Thaksin to step down, and those in the poor, rural northeastern provinces, who benefited from Thaksin’s populist policies.

Asia Sentinel





Thailand’s Constitutional Merry-Go-Round

Daniel Ten Kate

20 August 2007

The country’s 18th charter exposes Thailand’s deep political divides

thaiconstitutionThailand’s vote Sunday to accept the junta’s constitution highlights the country’s deep regional divide instead of serving as a ringing endorsement of a new dawn for the country’s immature democracy.

The country’s 18th constitution, spawned in the wake of last September’s military coup that ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, clears the way for an election at the end of the year that will likely see a party of ex-generals led by retiring coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin attempt to cling to power.

Every region except the country’s poor northeast, which formed Thaksin’s base, voted to approve the constitution. With 95 percent of the votes counted, the Election Commission said 14.3 million people, or 56.7 percent, voted Yes while 41.4 percent voted No. Turnout was about 57 percent of about 45 million voters, in line with expectations.

Northeastern voters roundly rejected the charter, with 63 percent voting No and only 36 percent voting Yes. The results indicate that poor rural voters are likely to vote in Thaksin loyalists in the general election scheduled for December, setting the stage for more political fighting going forward.

The new constitution was supposed to rectify the misdeeds of the Thaksin years and restore true democracy to Thailand. In a white paper penned a month after the coup, the junta stated plainly: “The coup took place because the principles and the spirit of the 1997 constitution were destroyed. The [coup leaders] are committed to swiftly restoring democracy.”

But while Thaksin unquestionably sought to undermine the old constitution through co-opting independent bodies during his tenure, the junta is guilty of the same sins since it took power. The new constitution empowers the same anti-Thaksin bureaucrats, judges, soldiers and royalists that tinkered with and rewrote the law for political gain, leading many voters to tire of an elitist power struggle that is heavy on buzz words like “democracy” and “human rights” but light on any tangible steps to make them a reality.

Even a cursory glance at the state of independent bodies now should give anti-Thaksin zealots who claim to love democracy cause for concern. The Election Commission just oversaw a referendum on a constitution that two of its five members helped to write and that allows them to maintain their jobs for the next six years. The National Counter Corruption Commission has taken a back seat to the Assets Examination Committee, a junta creation that froze Thaksin’s money on dubious legal grounds. A seven-member committee comprised mostly of judges will now appoint nearly half of the new 150-member Senate, which is tasked with overseeing independent agencies.

Indeed, most worrying is the judiciary itself. The troubles began in April 2006, when King Bhumibol Adulyadej made a speech telling judges “to solve the problem” stemming the political stalemate that had gripped the country since Thaksin initially dissolved Parliament in February 2006.

Since then, nearly every major court decision has been laced with political overtones, infuriating legal experts who fear the judiciary’s independence has been compromised. Moreover, the new constitution grants new powers to judges to appoint members to key independent bodies, giving them more powers outside the courtroom that threaten to undermine their objectivity.

The recent disclosure of taped conversations held last year between two judges and an unidentified bureaucrat reveals the extent to which Thailand’s judiciary skirted the law to void the boycotted April 2006 election and toss the previous election commissioners in jail. The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC), in conjunction with the Asian Human Rights Commission, has posted a transcript of the conversations on its website with the following caveat: “Although the authenticity of the recording had not been confirmed at time of going to print, it has not been denied.”

Jakrapob Penkair, a former Thaksin government spokesman now leading anti-coup demonstrations, aired the taped conversation at a public rally in May. Police are now seeking to bring charges against him under a coup group order that bans the airing of wiretapped conversations without authorization.

The most damning part of the conversation quotes Supreme Court Secretary Virat Chinvinijkul revealing that the courts had already agreed on a verdict before the cases ever went to trial, according to the ALRC transcript.

“We ourselves when making announcements don’t dare to mention the Royal Address because it would be like we just followed what [the king] instructed,” Virat says. “The foreigners won’t accept it.”

All of the major court decisions over the past year put political expediency ahead of justice. As if playing by a script, the courts nullified the April 2006 election, tossed the election commissioners in jail, dissolved the Thai Rak Thai party and banned its executives for five years.

Now the generals have issued arrest warrants for Thaksin and his wife Pojaman for conflict of interest for the 2003 purchase of a prime land plot. More warrants are expected in the coming weeks.

Thaksin is sitting comfortably in England at the moment, watching happily as his newest investment, Manchester City football club, sits atop the Premier League with three straight wins. He also has his lawyers working overtime to prepare to fight an extradition request from Thailand.

That certainly won’t be easy, no matter how confident Thai leaders appear in public. A British court previously threw out a Thai government extradition request for Pin Chakkaphak, the former head of a finance company that went under in the 1997 financial crisis, because Thailand doesn’t offer trials by jury.

Given the many other dubious legal decisions over the past year, it’s even more unlikely that Britain will determine that Thaksin could get a fair trial in Thailand. By the time the lengthy process goes through, the CNS should be out of power. And, by that time, politicians will again have some power, but how much remains to be seen. Already a day after the referendum, Democrat party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva called for political parties to join together to amend the new constitution—a call taken up by former members of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party.

Politicians of all stripes have an interest in changing the new charter, which cuts the legs off political parties in favor of non-elected bureaucrats, soldiers, and judges. Just how much the politicians will be able to stand up to the formidable group of coup supporters remains to be seen.

One thing seems clear. Instead of “restoring democracy,” the coup leaders have simply rewritten the rules to favor themselves—an abuse of power akin to that for which they tossed out Thaksin. Now the conflict looks set to continue as various groups struggle for power, and only a few continue to fight for a real democracy.



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