Constitution takes center stage in Thai power struggle

At issue are clauses that could shut down the popular former prime minister's party.

The coalition government led by supporters of ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra is attempting to push through changes to the Constitution drafted by the Army after the 2006 coup, sparking a renewed political fight in this polarized Southeast Asian nation.

Last December, the People Power Party (PPP), formed by Mr. Thaksin's allies after a junta-appointed court dissolved his Thai Rak Thai Party, surprised the military with a convincing election victory on the back of strong rural support. Yet with new clauses written into the Constitution by the Army last year, the PPP, with two coalition partners, is once again facing dissolution for alleged election fraud.

In response, the PPP-led government is trying to quickly approve constitutional changes that would prevent it from being dissolved. But opposition groups instrumental in ousting Thaksin two years ago have accused the government of abusing its power, setting the stage for a showdown that some fear may lead to street clashes or possibly even another putsch.

"The Constitution fight is a new battleground in the same conflict," says Thitinan Pongsudhirak, head of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The crisis hasn't changed. It's the same thing, just a different setting."

The PPP wants to change two articles in particular: Article 237, which says a party must be dissolved if any of its executive members is found guilty of election fraud; and Article 309, which provides an amnesty for the generals who staged the coup. Neither clause was in the now-scrapped 1997 Constitution. The PPP says they are undemocratic and aimed solely at weakening political parties in favor of judges and the bureaucracy.

But two coalition parties also facing dissolution – Chart Thai and Matchimathipitaya – may not support scrapping Article 309, as they both still have links with the military. Critics fear that eliminating this clause would do away with a military-created body set up to bring corruption cases against Thaksin, even though he could still be tried through the regular judicial process.

The sole opposition Democrat Party hasn't revealed its position on the clauses. But Ong-Art Klampaiboon, the party's spokesman, says the PPP should wait for all sides to first agree on a method for changing the Constitution.

"For most articles, we haven't reached any conclusion on what we think, but we believe the PPP wants to amend the Constitution fast to avoid trouble in the justice system," he says. "It's difficult to say whether we agree or don't agree, as the process is just getting started."

Indeed, most political parties agree on the need to change several of the more undemocratic clauses in the Constitution. But the PPP wants changes quickly so they can survive, while the Democrat Party knows that stalling could deal a heavy blow to its main rival.

Since the process could take six months or more, the PPP wants to table a bill before the parliament recesses in a few weeks. It is hoping to pass it before the Supreme Court rules on a case in which PPP executive member Yongyuth Tiyapairat is accused of vote-buying. A guilty verdict would put the wheels in motion for the PPP to be dissolved.

Proponents of Article 237 say it will clean up the notoriously corrupt political system, though they often fail to explain why convicting individuals found guilty of vote-buying without punishing the whole party wouldn't accomplish the same purpose. The idea of dissolving political parties runs contrary to the 1997 constitution, which aimed to bring about stronger parties and a more stable political system.

"Politically, dissolving parties accomplishes nothing," says Vorajet Pakeerat, a lecturer at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "A new party will be formed with a different name, just like the PPP came from Thai Rak Thai. People in the northeast will still support this party and it will create a new problem for Thaksin's opponents. The whole thing is nonsense."

A wide divide remains between Bangkok's well-to-do urbanites and the rural poor, which benefited greatly under Thaksin and the PPP. The opposition Democrats have made few inroads in northeast Thailand, a crucial region for putting together a ruling coalition.

Some analysts expect a deal in which Article 237 is eliminated immediately and a broad-based committee is set up to rewrite the Constitution.

But many suspect that Thaksin wants to clear all charges against him during this government's term and free his nearly $2 billion in frozen assets.

"This is a lot of posturing and saberrattling right now, but the direction is alarming," says Mr. Thitinan from Chulalongkorn University. "PPP doesn't appear to be going for a compromise."

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