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Call to abort charter change spurs debate in Thailand

Publication Date : 18-12-2012


Opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva's call for eligible voters to "abort" a planned national referendum on amending the Thai constitution sparked a widespread debate yesterday.

The ruling Pheu Thai Party accused Abhisit of failing to adhere to the democratic principle of respect for the majority voice.

An election commissioner also warned that any move to deceive, intimidate, or influence eligible voters to not exercise their voting right was against the Public Referendum Act. This was a criminal offence punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to 200,000 baht (US$6,500).

Abhisit clarified his statement yesterday, saying he meant people should help abort the government attempt to write an entirely new constitution in order to help former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of legal problems.

"I did not mean the referendum should be blocked," said Abhisit, who is the Democrat Party leader and the former prime minister.

A Democrat legal expert, MP Wiratana Kalayasiri, said yesterday he believed eligible voters who oppose the government's move to rewrite the charter have the right to stage "civil disobedience" by not going to vote, as well as simply voting against it. He said that unlike a general election, when eligible voters have a duty to vote, people have the right to choose whether to vote in a referendum.

The Constitution states that in order for a public referendum to become effective, at least half of the eligible voters must come out to exercise their voting right.

"The most effective way [against the charter rewrite move] is not to turn out to vote. When the turnout is high, it is unlikely there will be more No votes than Yes votes," Wiratana said.

He added, however, that the idea was not a resolution by the party. He said the matter would be discussed at a Democrat meeting in Hua Hin today.

In an open letter he posted on his Facebook page on Sunday, Abhisit accused the Yingluck government of attempting to write a new constitution so that Article 309 of the current charter would be removed for Thaksin's interest.

"Everybody can help by aborting the referendum.…Let's come together to abort the referendum that will allow constitutional amendment for a fugitive. Let's move past Thaksin and bring the country forward," Abhisit said.

The final clause of the charter guarantees all acts recognised by the post-coup Interim Constitution of 2006 are lawful and constitutional. These include moves by the coup makers and orders against the Thaksin government, which they described as corrupt.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra yesterday denied her government's charter move aimed to help her brother Thaksin. "The constitutional amendment will be for the interest of the country and the people," she said.

Senior Democrat MP Ongart Klampaiboon said yesterday the party would not try to obstruct the planned public referendum. "The Democrat Party will never take any action that is illegal," he said.

Election commissioner Sodsri Satayathum, when asked to comment on the campaign for no-show of eligible voters, warned yesterday that it was against the law for anyone to deceive, intimidate or influence eligible voters not to exercise their right. People opposed to a rewrite of the Constitution should instead call for opponents to vote No.

Pheu Thai deputy spokesman Jirayu Huangsap said yesterday that Abhisit's call showed he failed to adhere to democratic principles, as he ignored the majority voice.

He said the Democrat Party should campaign for supporters of their cause to vote No in the plebiscite instead.

Meanwhile, PM's Office Minister Varathep Ratanakorn said Justice Minister Police Gen Pracha Promnok was prepared to put a proposal to hold a referendum to the Cabinet today.

He said he worried that Abhisit's remark would confuse people as the government was about to propose holding a referendum but the content and specific question had yet to be discussed.

Abhisit seemed to be opposed to any amendment of the charter. His statement was against democracy, but at least it did not promote people not exercising their voting right, Varathep said.

Conditions for public hearing

A number of votes are required to hold a referendum. According to the Constitution and Referendum Act, two figures are involved in conducting a national referendum.

Since the country has 46 million eligible voters, a referendum will be legitimate only if over 23 million people participate.

Article 9 of the Referendum Act, an organic law, states that a referendum requires more than half of eligible voters to come to vote and the resolution of the referendum must come from the majority of the turnout.

The charter rewrite as proposed by the government can be deemed as receiving support from the people only if more than 11.5 million people out of over 23 million vote for it.


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