Thailand Endorses Draft Constitution

Voters in Thailand have narrowly approved a draft constitution proposed by the military-backed government, which has hailed the measure as a first step back to democracy after a bloodless coup nearly a year ago.

Sunday's vote was widely seen as a referendum on the legitimacy of the coup that deposed former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra last September. Thaksin remains in exile in Britain.

The interim government was hoping for a high voter turnout and a clear majority of the vote in favor of the new constitution, but the election commission said just under 58 percent of those who cast ballots voted yes, while nearly 43 percent voted no.

Thaksin's support remains strong in the largely rural and poor northeast of the country, where his government instituted populist measures. There the vote ran nearly 2-to-1 against the military.

Many believe the 186-page constitution, which will be the country's 18th since 1932, is a step back for Thai democracy. It curbs the role of politicians, gives more power to unelected bodies such as the courts and could perpetuate the behind-the-scenes power the military has wielded in Thailand for decades.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, said to many people, it smacks of a return to the so-called 'managed democracy' of the 1980s.

The referendum vote "clearly reflects a deeply divided country, as divided as it has been for the past two years," Thitinan said.

He predicts things could get even messier if Thaksin's former party, Thai Rak Thai - disbanded, but now reconstituted under a different name — contests the general election the government says will now go ahead in December.

"The parties that represent the north and the northeast will come from parties that are Thai Rak Thai, or used to be Thai Rak Thai, and then we'll have other parties trying to represent the government and the coup makers," Thitinan said.

"They will have a conflict. I think the government and the coup makers will try to have the election but somehow keep the former Thai Rak Thai party from taking power," he said.

Thitinan is no fan of Thaksin. But he - and many others in civil society - have grown disenchanted with the military government and its interim government.

"What they want to do with the new constitution is use the appointed senators to work together with the judiciary to keep in check and control the elected politicians," he said. "So, basically elected representatives now are being subordinated to these outside forces which represent the old elite, the bureaucrats, the military and the monarchy."

Thaksin biographer Chris Baker said the former prime minister and the coup leaders share the blame for the current instability. And it is the Thai people, he said, who are the biggest losers.

"Thaksin tried to keep everyone else out of politics except his friends," Baker said. He "was aiming for some kind of one-man rule and one-party state.

"We've got to get to a situation where all sides are willing to come to playing by a common set of rules, but at the moment we don't seem to be moving towards that at all," he said.

The new charter will serve as a replacement for a 1997 one popularly dubbed "the people's constitution" for the extensive public consultation and debate leading to its adoption.

That version attempted to bring democratic reforms to a system that left political parties beholden to local power brokers with little or no ideological allegiances, a system that led to unstable, short-lived coalition governments.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press

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