Saturday, August 18, 2007

D-Day for Thai constitution

Thai Takes

LAST week, seen plastered on a windscreen of a Bangkok taxi was a sticker with the message written in Thai: “We take passengers but not the draft constitution.”

And I wondered whether the taxi driver would pick up the startling Martian-looking promoters who are the government’s mascot in its campaign to encourage about 45 millions Thais to vote in tomorrow’s national referendum on the draft constitution.

If a majority of Thais vote ‘yes’ then the proposed charter would be Thailand’s 18th since the 1932 revolution which saw the overthrow of the absolute monarchy.

If the draft is rejected, the military junta would then consider and revise one of Thailand’s 17 previous constitutions.

Tomorrow’s democratic process is a consequence of an undemocratic act. On Sept 19 last year, the Thai military toppled the democratically elected government of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and ripped up the 1997 constitution.

And on June 28, a military-appointed commission finished drafting a new constitution. Like James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses, only a small minority of Thais have actually read entirely the complicated 309-article charter. For those with the attention span of Homer Simpson, the government came out with a cartoon version.

Among the highlights of the draft charter, which needs a simple majority to pass, is the prime minister - who must be an elected member of parliament - is limited to two terms and no more than eight years in office.

It also makes it easier for opposition parties to file censure motions against the prime minister. And it grants amnesty for the coup leaders.

Early this month, The Nation reported that proponents and opponents of the draft charter heatedly debated half a dozen issues for three hours on television.

The proponents argued that a ‘yes’ vote would ensure that democracy returned to the people as in case of a ‘no’ vote junta would continue to exist.

They also claimed that Thais would have more rights under the new charter as it promised to make it easier for the public to recall politicians, amend the constitution and propose new legislation.

While the opponents reasoned that supporting the charter was tantamount to endorsing the illegitimate action of the coup. They also maintained that the senate appointments amounted to betrayal of the people’s right to choose their representatives.

For some of Thaksin’s die-hard supporters, they will vote with their heart. Adisorn Piangket, a leading member a group from Thaksin’s disbanded political party, Thai Rak Thai, urged supporters, “if you love Thaksin, you must vote against the 2007 draft charter.”

“I would like everybody to think of the person who is in exile because if the draft is approved, Thaksin will not be able to return to the country,” Adisorn said.

However, tomorrow’s referendum’s result will probably break Adisorn’s heart. It is likely to be approved.

A recent national survey by Chulalongkorn University found that 78 percent of respondents indicated they would vote ‘yes’ to the charter, even though only 47 percent were satisfied with it.

The survey results is a reflection of the general sentiment in Thailand where most Thais just want the new constitution to be approved so that it would pave the way for elections.

Tomorrow, the focus will be on the margin of victory and voter turnout.

The referendum outcome, says Surapong Suebwonglee, a close aide of Thaksin, should represent a majority vote of more than 50 per cent of the electorate otherwise the result would be inconclusive.

“If fewer than 50 per cent of voters cast ballots, then we don’t feel this is the charter for the entire population,” he said.

While the army-installed interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said that his Cabinet targeted at least 23 million votes from about 45 million eligible voters, Surayud prefers a high voter turn out, as it would indicate that the people approved the coup.

To achieve that, the army-installed government has declared a three-day weekend and convinced bus and train operators to reduce their fares so that millions of Thais could return to their hometowns to vote.

As for the taxi driver, probably he has taken off the anti-charter sticker as the government has warned that it might be against the referendum law.

(Published in The Star on August 18, 2007. Photograph courtesy of Reuters)