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New charter ballot could be a historic game-changer

Mar 29. 2016
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THE PLANNED referendum in August - on the question whether people approve of the latest draft constitution for the Kingdom - may well test the spirit of democracy in Thai society.
The result could not only yield the adoption of the controversial charter but also give justification to the junta that is backing the draft.
The new constitution draft is now complete and ready for public release before it is submitted to a referendum in early August.
Constitution Drafting Commission (CDC) chairman Meechai Ruchupan recently said the draft – with its 17 chapters and 279 sections – could serve to both manage crises and curb corruption. He said it follows the blueprint drawn up by the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) – seen in Article 35 of the 2014 interim charter – and the recent controversial proposals from the so-called “four rivers of power” including the Cabinet.
The new proposed political structure now covers the single-ballot system; the qualifications of electoral candidates (and the grounds for their disqualification); the parliamentary structure, including 250 non-elected senators during the transitional period; and the powers of the independent organisations and the Constitutional Court. Other rules are included to make sure the majority government, elected by voters from across the country, is held in check. The “balances”, however, are still highly in question.
As much as the CDC assured its independence, the ruling coup-makers stood their ground while denying they sought to retain power after the promised general election. However, it should be noted that the political structure delivered by this charter draft would not be unusual compared to other post-coup periods.
The 1978 Constitution, sponsored by the coup-makers led by Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu, provided a similar parliamentary composition with a fully appointed Senate as powerful as the elected MPs. The consequences, however, were not very rosy and the bloodshed in 1992 was in part a legacy of that political structure, which led to coup-maker General Suchinda Kraprayoon to become prime minister in the semi-democratic era following the 1978 charter.
The tragedy of 1992, in blood and lives, proved the society’s intolerance of an undemocratic outsider prime minister. 
Today, more than two decades later, Thais are being tested again, this time by the current regime and its proposed canon – and whether the document has enough of the spirit of democracy, if any at all.
Thus, this upcoming referendum – asking whether the junta-sponsored charter should be accepted and adopted as the country’s supreme law – is decisive and promises to be another significant milestone in Thai history.
If it passes the plebiscite, a similar post-coup political structure would re-emerge – which could lead to discontent and upheaval as in 1992. At the same time, the coup and the junta’s seizure of power would also be automatically endorsed.
To elaborate: Success in the referendum could mean that society thinks coup d’etats are acceptable and approves of a constitution in which the people played no part in the drafting. More importantly, it could mean that the military is authorised to seize power and tear up a constitution, as long as it can convince people it could write a new and better one.
On the contrary, if the charter is killed in the referendum, it will be a slap to the face of the current regime. Doubts would be raised if it were only the charter draft that people turned down – or were the charter’s sponsors who are currently ruling the country rendering a questionable performance?
Defeat would mean that voters had turned sour on the charter. The whole regime backing the draft would feel the effects.
Either way, the outcome of the plebiscite will reveal which side of the political spectrum the majority of society is leaning towards. And perhaps it will be a wake-up call to the key leaders of the losing side who will have to sit down and rethink their battle strategy once again.

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