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Thailand's New Constitution

By Bertil Lintner

As expected, a constitution drafted under the auspices of Thailand's military-installed government was approved by a referendum on 19 August. But even junta chief Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin had to concede a lower-than-expected yes-vote. "I previously expected a majority vote of 60 to 65 per cent," he told Thailand's Channel 9 morning news after the vote. Only 57.6 per cent turned out to vote, of whom 57.81 per cent approved of the draft constitution while 42.19 per cent voted against it.

There were also significant regional differences, which reflect the divisions within Thai society which has surfaced over the past few years. In the northeast, a stronghold of ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, 63 per cent rejected the draft constitution, while in the south - where Thaksin's opponents, the Democrats, are strong and where the local Muslim population was alienated under the previous regime - nearly 90 per cent voted in favour. In Thaksin's home turf in the north, the no-vote was 46 per cent, or higher than the national average, but still not a majority.

After the referendum, Supreme Commander Gen Boonsang Niempradit cautioned the Council for National Security, or CNS, the official name of the junta, against being "complacent", stressing that "the number of those in favour of the draft surpassed those who didn't by a small margin."

The CNS, and the government it installed after the coup on September 19 last year, therefore have to tread very carefully - and be prepared for some unpleasant surprises when general elections are held in December. While it would be too simplistic to say that everyone who voted against the constitution is a Thaksin supporter - among them were also many pro-democracy activists who last year demonstrated against what they perceived as Thaksin's authoritarian rule but then became equally critical of the coup - the anti-military bloc has clearly shown its strength.

A tug-of-war is likely to develop between these forces and the military, which seems determined to remain a potent political force behind the scenes. A major bone of contention is the role of the new Senate. Under the previous 1997 constitution, which the CNS abolished when it ousted Thaksin, all its 200 members were democratically elected. It will now be reduced to 150 members, with one senator elected, or selected, from each of Thailand's 76 provinces, while the remaining 74 will be appointed by a panel of judges and other officials. The elected House of Representatives will consist of 400 members, compared with 500 previously, of whom 320 will be directly elected and 80 appointed from party lists on the basis of proportional representation.

Furthermore, Article 76 of the draft constitution stipulates that the "state shall arrange adequate provision of military forces and modern weapons, ammunition, military equipment and technology necessary to protect and maintain national independence", while paragraph 2 of Article 32 enables police officers to search people without court warrants, a clause which human rights groups have condemned as undemocratic.

The junta has argued that it wants to prevent a single political party from becoming too powerful - which they say was the case under Thaksin's now disbanded Thai Rak Thai - but it also means that unelected forces and individuals will become more influential, and the military more powerful. Thaksin may not be able to challenge this from his exile in London, as he and 110 other former Thai Rak Thai officials have been barred from political activity for a period of five years, but other supporters and anti-military elements are likely to join forces for the upcoming election. Thaksin will then most likely remain in the background as an advisor and a source of inspiration. By buying the Premier League Manchester City football club, he has, in a shrewd way, made sure that he will remain in the limelight and not be forgotten by the public at large.

The referendum has left Thailand deeply divided, and the military is clearly worried about the December election. It would most likely want to see a comparatively weak coalition government, the activities of which it would be able to supervise through non-elected members of the Senate, or a kind of "guided democracy" to prevent a phenomenon like the Thai Rak Thai - which gained an absolute majority in previous elections - from re-emerging. But, as the referendum has shown, it will not be without opposition from large segments of society who may or may not be supporters of the ousted prime minister.

WATCHPOINT: The military-installed government has pledged to hold elections before the end of the year and, judging from the result of he recent referendum, anti-military forces are likely to make a good showing, setting the stage for more political confrontation. Sharp divisions within Thai society will remain a serious social and political problem.

This article first appeared in Asian Analysis, September, 2007

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