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Charter change: Road ahead is lined with booby traps

Publication Date : 17-01-2013


The proposed constitutional amendment by the ruling Pheu Thai Party is stuck in the mud. Things could get messier if the next step in that direction isn't handled with great care.

For the first time, Pheu Thai leaders admitted - after a Khao Yai resort powwow one recent weekend - that legal and political complications had piled up to form a roadblock against changing some major clauses in the charter that they believe are serious obstacles for their own political future.

"We used to say that there were always several ways out of a problem. Now, we have come to realise that every way out is blocked by a host of problems," admitted Pheu Thai leader and interior minister, Charupong Ruangsuwan.

The road ahead is full of booby traps, they claim, and since opinions expressed in the closed-door brainstorming session were highly divergent, the decision was not to make a decision.

The only way to buy a bit more time (45-60 days) was to announce that the issue would be studied by a group of academics in political science and law, who can come up with various options.

That statement, obviously, wasn't meant to be taken seriously. Every time politicians refer their indecision to academics, the natural conclusion is that they are diverting public attention temporarily until such time as they can settle their differences.

But Pheu Thai doesn't have the luxury of time either. On the one hand, its close alliance to the red shirts has put pressure on the party to go ahead and vote on the third and final reading of the constitutional amendment bill so that a Constitution Drafting Committee can be formed to rewrite the charter.

On the other hand, Thaksin Shinawatra, the real power behind the scenes, has publicly stated that the party should proceed with holding a referendum to ask for a public mandate to amend the Constitution.

Thaksin says he is confident that he can gather enough votes to get the referendum passed in Pheu Thai's favour. The red shirts say they aren't sure about that, and that going the route of a referendum would be tantamount to playing into the hands of those who are waiting to undermine the charter-change campaign.

Pheu Thai members are split between the two options. The official decision to ask the political science and law experts to look into the various options is nothing more than postponing the day of reckoning.

The Pheu Thai Party's leadership is caught between the fear of strong opposition from the yellow shirts - the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) - who are against voting on the third reading, and the red shirts who are vehemently opposed to holding a referendum.

Not only that, they are also not sure how the judges on the panel of the Constitutional Court would react to the two possible scenarios. If they move ahead with the third reading, the court might find fault with the decision, since the court earlier suggested that a referendum would be an appropriate process.

On the other hand, if Pheu Thai goes for the referendum, it could run the risk of losing the vote, Thaksin's public confidence and statement notwithstanding, and setting itself apart from the red shirts who remain a strong bastion of the party's political stability.

The problem gets even more complicated when some Pheu Thai members have raised the question of how the referendum is to be held. The present charter stipulates two kinds of referendum; one is a decisive "yes-no" formula and the other strictly on a "consultative" basis with no binding commitment to the outcome of the vote.

To avoid possible negative consequences, the red-shirt leaders have officially filed a petition to the Constitutional Court for "clarifications" on a number of issues on just where the judges stand.

At the same time, the party's working group on charter amendments has consulted the Election Commission on how the proposed referendum should be conducted, to prevent any further legal snags.

But legal explanations and clarifications don't necessarily provide a way out for Pheu Thai and Thaksin as long as the real motives behind this move remain cloaked in political nuance and innuendo.


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