Eager for democracy, Thais weigh junta's constitution

Many Thais see the proposed charter as a step back for democracy.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Polls suggest that voters in Thailand will approve a new constitution, proposed by the ruling military junta, by a wide majority in a referendum Sunday.

The constitution, which would reduce the power of political parties and increase that of nonelected bureaucrats and judges, is widely viewed as a reaction to the rule of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was deposed last September. Mr. Thaksin, whose populist economic policies made him a hero among Thailand's rural poor, was seen as too powerful by the country's urban elite.

While many Thais see the new constitution, which would legitimize last September's military coup, as a step back for Thailand's democracy, a majority of voters will probably accept it as a first step toward the parliamentary elections the junta has promised for December.

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"I will go to vote 'yes' on August 19," says Saowaluck Promsupa, a Bangkok DVD vendor who, like many voters, says she has little knowledge of the document's ins and outs. "The reason is very simple. I want to see the election happen at the end of the year so that our country can go back to peace. If I vote 'no,' this crazy stuff happening to Thailand right now will not end."

The vote itself doesn't represent much of a choice, as the generals will still be able to pick any constitution and make any changes they wish in case the public votes it down. But junta leaders are using all available resources to push for a high turnout since low participation or a surprise defeat would undermine the military-installed government's legitimacy. The vote this weekend will be the first time Thais have visited the polls since the coup.

Critics say the constitution may also herald a return to the pre-Thaksin Thailand of the 1990s – a period marked by weak executives and frequent power shifts.

"I think the constitution will be accepted because the government's publicity campaign is very widespread throughout the whole country," says Somchai Pakpatwiwat, a political science lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "Thai democracy will go back in time to before the 1997 constitution, when the tenure of governments was very short. It's the same old story."

But draft proponents say the new charter makes some improvements for civil society. It expands the power of the media, makes it easier for citizens to introduce legislation, and seeks to boost disclosure rules for politicians – one of the key complaints surrounding the deposed billionaire Thaksin.

Nevertheless, one of the most controversial clauses permits seven members of a committee, composed mostly of judges, to appoint nearly half of the Senate. Previously, Upper House members were all directly elected. The new draft also absolves the generals of any wrongdoing, a clause that constitution opponents say opens the door for another coup down the road.

"The draft is very undemocratic and destroys the balance of power between elected politicians and the bureaucracy," says Kanin Boonsuwan, a constitutional-law expert who helped write Thailand's 1997 charter. "It treats elected politicians like criminals that need to be controlled."

Thaksin, who has remained in the headlines in exile with his purchase of top-flight English soccer club Manchester City, has urged his followers to vote against the constitution. The military has kept the pressure on the former prime minister, and earlier this week a Thai court issued arrest warrants for him and his wife for conflict of interest in a 2003 land purchase. Authorities have vowed to seek his extradition from England.

But even though Thaksin's former Thai Rak Thai party handily won the past three general elections, including the April 2006 vote that the courts eventually voided, it's unclear if the party's strong rural support will translate into a big "no" vote. Former party members have regrouped under a different name and are campaigning against the referendum, but the government has kept a tight leash on campaign activities.

Martial law remains in place in many rural areas in the poorer Northeast that formed Thaksin's base. Army chief and coup leader Sonthi Boonyaratglin has also ordered soldiers to help "educate" people about the constitution, and billboards urging citizens to head to the polls have linked a "yes" vote with love for Thailand's king, who is revered throughout the country and supposed to be nonpolitical.

No matter what happens, however, the new constitution does little to bridge the vast political divide between Bangkok's urban elite and poorer voters in the countryside, many of whom still support the ousted prime minister. Thaksin loyalists could perform strongly in a general election slated for later this year despite obstacles set up by the coup leaders. A victory for former Thai Rak Thai members could lead to further unrest in the future.

"I don't know much about the referendum or the differences between the old and new constitutions," says Inthira Pakawan from Ubon Ratchathani Province in northeastern Thailand, who is working in Bangkok as a waitress. "All I know is my people back home love Thaksin. If there is anything that would make Thaksin come back, I would vote for that."

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