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POLITICS-THAILAND: New Constitution Regressive Say Critics

Ron Corben

BANGKOK, Apr 23 2007 (IPS) - Thailand’s new constitution, released for public debate last week, faces a difficult a plebiscite in September, featuring as it does proposals to limit the influence of political parties and the executive and install an appointed ‘upper house’ senate.

The draft, released by the military appointed 35-member Constitution Drafting Committee, comes seven months after elected prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was overthrown in a coup, accused of abusing powers under the 1997 constitution.

Since the coup there has been a tendency to limit the public’s role in the political process that has alarmed pro-democracy activists through the drafting of the new constitution – Thailand’s 18th since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.

If passed, the new constitution will reduce the number of elected members of parliament from 500 to 400 and limit any prime minister’s tenure to a maximum of eight years in two four-year terms.

On the other hand it will become easier for individual politicians to switch political parties in the lead up to an election, undermining the influence of the parties. It is targeted at preventing a return of a concentration of power that occurred under Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party that built up a massive majority in parliament.

“The first draft of the new charter is designed to prevent the monopolisation of Thai politics that was seen under overthrown prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra’s five-year rule,” political commentator Thitinan Pongsudhirak noted in the ‘Bangkok Post’ on Friday.

“It is practically a revenge on the so-called Thaksin regime and a rejection of the hard-won principles enshrined in the previous 1997 ‘people’s charter’,” Thitinan said.

The 1997 charter was itself a reaction to the past. After the bloody crackdown by the then military in 1992 to pro-democracy protests after the appointment of a non-elected prime minister, Gen. Suchinda Krayprayoon, the steps to ensuring support for the 1997 constitution had been sound.

Overseeing the constitution’s birth was an elected – not appointed – drafting assembly. A wide debate preceded its presentation to parliament in 1997.

“As heated debates ensue over the merits of the draft, the Thai people are likely to miss the 1997 charter. It remains the best constitution Thailand has ever had. Its fatal flaw was that it allowed Thaksin’s rise and abusive five-year rule,” Thitinan added.

Already the new document has been greeted with scepticism and criticism and viewed as a backward step in Thailand’s efforts to promote democracy. Kraisak Choonhavan, a former senator, says a non-elected senate will be widely regretted by pro-democracy advocates.

“The issue which is very worrisome is that they want the senate to be a rubber stamp senate – meaning appointed. Can you believe that in a democracy? Such things are clearly a regression,” Kraisak said in an interview.

Others are simply looking at the new charter to overcome those weaknesses in the 1997 constitution that enabled Thaksin to concentrate power, and remedy them. Narudh Chevamahara, a 22-year-old economics student from Chulalongkorn University, wants the charter to avoid the previous administration’s shortfalls.

“The last constitution àall the loopholes, the government used to corrupt or basically cheat the people. (So) each loophole (should) be closed down and simply ‘retune’ it,” Narudh told IPS.

But the outlook remains difficult for the new charter. A range of groups from pro-Thaksin supporters to anti-military and coup groups, academics and some civil society organisations have all voiced their opposition to the charter. It is a concern that Narudh has over the outlook for the charter.

“What worries me is the people might have the anti-government sentiment and they might end up saying ‘OK – since the government is doing a bad job and they might say OK this constitution would be bad as the government’ – and simply reject it. I think the people have to study more on this constitution before judging whether it is good or not,” he said.

Campaign for Popular Democracy (CPD) secretary general Suriyasai Katasila told ‘The Nation’ newspaper that the constitution would weaken “people’s power” and also that of politicians. But while the CPD opposed proposals such as reducing the number of elected representatives, the new charter provides for more people’s participation.

Under the new charter the numbers of signatures required to launch issue of possible impeachment of politicians or the proposal for new laws have been reduced to 20,000 from 50,000 under the 1997 constitution.

The new charter also raises the profile of the judiciary. Senior judges will have unprecedented authority to select and approve commissioners of the so-called independent institutions. A special 11-person committee, including the prime minister, parliamentary president, the senate president, senior judges, will be set up to resolve national crises.

“Many people may think judges are much more honest and credible than politicians. But too much power centred in the courts could eventually result in a possible corruption of the courts – and abuse by the various courts themselves,” said ‘The Nation’ commentator Pravit Rojanaphruk.

Others, such as Supavud Saicheua, economist for ‘Phatra Securities’, says Thailand’s earliest possible return to democracy will require the draft constitution being backed by a public referendum.

“In this way, the Thai people are becoming aware that the new constitution need not necessarily be better than the previous one written meticulously in 1997. Indeed, the new constitution can be worse. But the Thai people will have to live with it anyway because without it, the country will not be returned to democracy,” Supavud said.

A rejection of the charter would leave the way open for the junta to choose at random one of the past constitutions and then proceed towards elections with little public debate.

With the charter’s draft now in the public domain a round of campaigns and promotions through the media, especially the print media, will take place in the weeks leading up to the vote in September. If passed, Thai electorate would go to the polls in December.

But Somphob Manarangsan, an economist from Chulalongkorn University, remains cautious. “Even though I think the new constitution is rather flexible and relatively well designed, to be accepted under the current circumstances, is not going to be very easy,” Somphob said.

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