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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

13. Thais' New Constitution

The draft charter sailed through the national referendum by a margin of about three votes to two - not good enough to reconcile a divided nation but a sufficient mandate to pave the way for a general election in December.

The Election Commission estimated voter turnout of 25 million, or 56.8 per cent of all 44.2 million eligible voters.

The EC's preliminary results from 95 per cent of the poll stations in the country's first-ever national referendum showed that 56.7 per cent of Thais (about 14.3 million voters) voted to support the new constitution, compared to 41.4 per cent (10.2 million voters) who voted against it. There were about 1.9 per cent of spoiled ballots.

But the Northeast region showed it still belonged to the defunct Thai Rak Thai Party's base by a wide margin, with "no" votes of 63 per cent and "yes" votes of only 36 per cent.

The Election Commission announced that it would not officially declare the outcome of the referendum until today (Aug 20) because it needed more time to count all the votes.

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont confirmed yesterday (Aug 19) the general election would take place before the end of the year following His Majesty the King's 80th birthday on Dec 5.

"A definite election date will be announced after a royal command for the promulgation of the new constitution and the completion of the legislative process for organic laws relating to elections," he said.

He hinted at a tentative date of either Dec 16 or Dec 23 - both Sundays.

His comments came after three exit polls showed the referendum had passed.

Charter writers have completed writing draft organic legislation. The law required them to do so within 45 days of the July completion of the constitution. The National Legislative Assembly now has 30 days to deliberate on those laws.

Surayud called on political rivals to accept the referendum, saying the majority had spoken - although minority voices would be respected, too.

He ruled out the possibility of the military continuing to engage in politics following the election.

"I don't think anyone can execute a plan for power succession because the people won't allow it," he said in answer to a question about junta chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin's political aspirations.

The vote to approve the charter means the people decided to advance democratic rule through elections. It cannot be construed as an endorsement of military involvement in politics, he said.

"My government will not form a political party nor contest the elections; the future is up to political parties," he said.

"I believe the people cast referendum votes because they want to overcome the political crisis."

Council for National Security chief Sonthi yesterday blamed poor public relations for the small margin of victory in the eyes of the voters.

Interviewed over the phone from Malaysia, Sonthi said the public did not get the message from the government campaign on the constitution draft.

"The campaign also did not reach out to them effectively," he said.

Asked if he believed the result of the referendum showed that Thai Rak Thai's political bases in the North and Northeast regions were still strong, Sonthi said political parties in the rival camp to Thai Rak Thai would face a tough fight in the election.

"What happened (yesterday) is a lesson on how to solve the country's future problems. It is good since we can see through things," he said.

Asked if the referendum result would affect his decision to enter politics, Sonthi said no. "Whatever I do, I do it for the sake of the country and peace."

He said after he retired he would continue to be CNS chief until the government ends its term. He will answer whether he will enter politics on Sept 30.

Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva called for a fresh start in Thai politics. He asked all groups in the ongoing political conflict to bury their past and start anew.

Abhisit said referendum day should be used as Day 1 for Thailand to move forward.

"I would like the conflicts to become a thing of the past and I don't want our country to further lose its chance to move on," Abhisit said.

The Thai Rak Thai group's leading members held a press conference to announce their acceptance of the results of the referendum and will push for amendments to improve the next constitution.

Chaturon Chaisang said the group would accept the results of the referendum, although they saw that it was not organised in line with democratic principles.

"We will try to help maintain reconciliation in society and will not push for a new referendum," Chaturon said.

"And in the future we will propose amendments to make the charter more democratic."

Advocates of the "Vote No" campaign last night closely monitored the results and were satisfaction at the high percentage of voters rejecting the draft.

"It's a wonderful surprise that the 'no' vote count is as high as 40 per cent," said Asst Prof Somchai Preechasilpakul, dean of Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Law and a prominent anti-charter campaigner.

"Such a close margin between the 'yes' and 'no' votes makes us wonder what the result would be if the plebiscite were held under a democratic atmosphere and a more trustworthy Election Commission."

The Stock Exchange of Thailand's index is set to surge today with the passage of the charter as investors will be buoyed by the prospects of Thailand returning to democratic rule and Friday's move of the US Federal Reserve to cut the discount rate to shore up financial markets - The Nation.