Fri Aug 24, 10:54 AM ET
AFP/HO Photo: Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej(R) signs the constitution next to the president of the junta-appointed National…
BANGKOK (AFP) – Thailand enacted a new army-backed constitution Friday, after King Bhumibol Adulyadej formally signed the charter that was approved by voters last weekend.
The king signed three gilded copies of the charter, written in ornate calligraphy on 296 folding slats of broad parchment traditionally used by Buddhist monks to write down prayers.
This now becomes the 18th constitution that Thailand has used since the end of absolute monarchy 75 years ago.
The military-installed government says the constitution will guide the country to elections to restore democracy by December after a bloodless coup last year that removed premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
“I hope that this constitution will help prevent anyone from holding a monopoly on power, while ensuring that politicians are moral and ethical and that politics is transparent,” said Meechai Ruchuphan, president of junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly.
“I want to see that elections are held soon, and that they are free and fair,” he told reporters.
Final results from the referendum showed that 56.69 percent of voters had approved the constitution, while 41.37 percent rejected it. The remain ballots were invalid.
Although the charter easily passed, the margin of victory and the turnout of 57.61 percent were lower than the junta had anticipated.
In a sign of how confident the junta was of winning, officials said work began on inscribing the ornate copies of the charter for the king’s signature more than a month before the referendum.
Critics say the charter will only empower the armed forces at the expense of elected leaders, setting the stage for fragile coalition governments that would fall under the military’s sway.
Thailand approves a constitution
Last Sunday, Thai voters approved a new constitution. The expected result clears the way for national elections later this year. But the military-installed government should not exaggerate the meaning of this vote. It is a vote for a constitution, not a particular government. The election that should follow must be free and fair. That will be the real test of Thailand’s democracy.
When Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a bloodless coup in September 2006, the military junta that deposed him pledged to return power to a civilian government as soon as possible. Wary of a return to the populist politics that Mr. Thaksin had mastered, the military government set up a constitutional committee that would draft a new national charter, the 18th since 1932, to replace the 1997 “people’s constitution” that introduced unprecedented democracy to Thailand.
As could be expected from a charter drawn up by a military-appointed group, the new charter gives more power to unelected bodies, such as the courts, and would fill half the seats in the Senate by appointment rather than election. Some charge that it safeguards the military’s behind-the-scenes political role.
Last weekend, Thai voters were given the opportunity to express their views on the document. If it did not pass their scrutiny, the government would have been free to adopt any of the previous 17 constitutions and amend it as the military-backed rulers wished. That latitude probably encouraged Thai voters to be less critical of the charter they were presented.
According to official results, nearly 58 percent of voters approved the new constitution. That majority is smaller than it seems, since turnout was only 57 percent of Thailand’s 45 million eligible voters. In contrast, about 70 percent of voters cast ballots in the last two general elections. Perhaps more disturbing is the geographic pattern of the vote. The constitution was rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters in the northeast — a poor, rural area that is a stronghold of Mr. Thaksin. A strong majority supported the charter in the capital of Bangkok.
This geographic divide is the primary fissure in Thai politics. Mr. Thaksin was driven from power in large part as a result of his populist appeals to poor and rural Thais who had long felt neglected by the traditional politicians. Thai elites and the middle class felt threatened by his policies and largely backed the coup that drove him from power on charges of corruption and abuse of power that remain unproven. Arrest warrants have been issued demanding his return to face charges, but Mr. Thaksin remains defiant and beyond the reach of Thai law.
Approving the constitution opens the door to a national parliamentary election, most likely to be held in December. That should end military rule, but the new constitution and the restrictions on politicking — Mr. Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party has been banned and 111 of its top members forbidden to run for office for five years — will profoundly influence the vote. Critics are right to charge that Thai democracy is being managed.
In fact, it is fair to say Sunday’s vote was not so much a referendum on the proposed constitution as a plea for a return to democratic politics. The Thai people have made it clear they want to select their government. A vote for the constitution is a call for stability that would then permit the people to reclaim their role as the rightful decision-makers in their country’s politics.
Fairly or not, the Democratic Party, an opposition party when Mr. Thaksin was in power, will go into the next election as the front-runner. The government must now ensure that the vote that is held is free and fair. The manipulation that framed the context in which the constitution was considered and that helped win its approval must end. The electoral playing field should be as level as possible.
Concerned friends and allies of Thailand should insist on a vote that’s fair. Such insistence does not amount to interference in Thai politics as the document just approved calls for democratic governance. The Thai government should be held to the standards that it has set and the standards to which it has adhered for the past decade. The Thai people have demanded as much.
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