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Establishing the “most democratic” charter by clipping the powers of political parties and politicians

Updated On: Jul 10, 2007

After months of controversy, Thailand’s draft charter is finally ready.

Last Friday, 6 July, the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) approved the final version of a charter that purports to be the most democratic and inclusive constitution the kingdom has ever had.

The gist of the draft constitution is as follows. It limits the prime minister to eight years in office and reduces the number of parliamentary seats. Press freedom is to be more strongly enforced as politicians will be prevented from being stakeholders in media companies. To curb graft, the premier and his family will be “barred from holding major stakes in private companies” while “all cabinet ministers and lawmakers will be required to declare all their assets”, Forbes reported. To increase public accountability, all public officials, including the premier, can be impeached for ethical violations as long as at least “20,000 voters sign a petition”; constitutional amendments can be made with 100,000 signatures and draft laws can be proposed with 10,000 signatures.

Now that the drafting phase is completed, the next step is to have it pass successfully through a referendum tentatively set for 19 August, before elections can be held. However, the referendum process will prove most tricky. Ironically, it is uncertain how much of the people’s voice will be reflected in Thailand’s new foundational document. The biggest problem facing Thailand now is whether the ordinary citizens prefer the new charter or an amended version of the 1997 “People’s Constitution”.

Shockingly enough, some “influential figures and groups do not believe Thai citizens should be allowed to debate this point”, the Bangkok Post commented. This includes the Election Commission (EC) which advocated the banning of debates and polls before the elections, and the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) which told the government “the ‘three sisters’ bills authorizing the referendum and election could not be considered quickly”. It seems that in the haste to have an elected government, the elites forgot to consider the basic question –“If Thai citizens are not responsible enough to debate and decide on their constitution in August, how can they suddenly be so capable of picking leaders and parliamentary representatives in December?”

True to their self-seeking form, public concerns are secondary to the elites’ habitual power grasping. As Thailand moves towards the referendum, many “old power groups” are intending to ensure the collapse of the draft constitution by spending Bt200 million to stage public protests. Ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra has predictably also denounced the draft charter, saying it was undemocratic as it was drafted by the junta’s lackeys. He also declared to the Thai press in Hong Kong, “People still miss, care and admire what I have done for their families.” There is some truth to this as Somkiat Pongpaibul, a political analyst at Nakhon Ratchasima Rajabhat University, has warned that Thaksin’s influence remains strong in Northeast Thailand and former Thai Rak Thai party members would use this to their advantage “even if they were standing for different parties”. Already the disbanded Thai Rak Thai party is planning a comeback under the leadership of Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law.  And former members of the TRT have already declared their opposition to the draft constitution saying that the draft charter will only help perpetuate the power of the CNS Generals.

Additionally, the Democrat party has well-known plans to form the next government. However, the newly-established Ruam Jai Thai, (Thai Unity) also intends to lead Thailand after the elections. Added to all this is the high propensity for coup leader and head of the Council of National Security (CNS), Sonthi Boonyaratglin, to enter politics. Of course, this move is strongly opposed. The Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) secretary-general Suriyasai Katasila said, “If he is interested in politics, he should wait out the next two elections to set a good example and show credibility to the public. Even though he will have retired from the military by then, his candidacy will surely sow seeds of doubts and the Thai public will ask this very serious question of whether military and national security resources will be exploited to help him win the election.”

However, the incumbent authorities are adamant that the new charter be a success. The Interior Ministry is going all out to educate the Thai public on democracy. Interior Minister Aree Wong-araya said, “We will tell the public that the draft charter was approved by 98 CDA members without objection. The public in general well understands the procedures of the draft. [Thus] the education campaign is aimed at providing knowledge to prospective voters so that they would elect good candidates as members of the House of Representatives.” To that end, he exhorted all the Thai people to support the referendum by participating in the polls “and approve the proposed constitution so that the general election can be held and a new government can be formed”, the Thai News Agency reported.   (9 July 2007)

Sources:

Interior Ministry to provide public education on democracy (Thai News Agency, 9 July 2007)

Election panel urges full voter turnout for referendum (Thai News Agency, 9 July 2007)

Let debate on charter begin (Bangkok Post, 9 July 2007)

Political intentions remain unclear (Bangkok Post, 9 July 2007)

People still miss me, says Thaksin (Bangkok Post, 9 July 2007)

Sonthi flayed over poll rumour(Bangkok Post, 9 July 2007)

Democrat expresses full support for draft constitution (Nation, 9 July 2007)

'Old powers in bid to ruin Thailand' (Nation, 9 July 2007)

Relative of Thaksin set to lead TRT renaissance (Nation, 9 July 2007)

Main points of Thailand's draft constitution (Forbes, 7 July 2007)

Thailand unveils charter to curb premier's power (Forbes, 5 July 2007)

Ruam Jai Thai's aim is to form the next government (Nation, 4 July 2007)

TRT ignites political tinder (Bangkok Post, 9 July 2007)