Sat, Jul 07, 2007 - Page 1 News List

Thai panel approves final draft of new constitution

AP , BANGKOK

A military-appointed panel passed the final draft of a new constitution for Thailand yesterday, the chairman of the committee said, setting the stage for a national referendum on the charter and elections later this year.

The draft comes 10 months after the military ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Under the draft, the parliamentary system will remain in place -- with the party winning the most seats forming a government. However, the number of seats in the House of Representatives was decreased from 500 to 480.

The Senate has been reduced from 200 members to 150, with one elected from each of the 76 provinces and the other 74 appointed by judges and independent government bodies.

The Constitution Drafting Assembly also agreed that a national referendum to decide whether to adopt the proposed constitution -- the country's 18th in 75 years -- would be held on Aug. 19, committee chairman Noranit Setabutr said.

The draft was approved unanimously, Noranit said, adding 19 million copies will be ready for the public on July 31.

The leaders of last September's coup, called the Council for National Security (CNS), annulled the 1997 Constitution and appointed the assembly to create a new one to eliminate the loopholes that they said had allowed Thaksin to gain excessive personal power and erode democratic institutions.

The new charter requires just one-fifth of the lower house members to seek a no-confidence debate against the prime minister -- instead of two-fifths as stated in the 1997 Constitution.

A general election has tentatively been scheduled for December, although interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has hinted that the poll could take place in November if the public passes the draft constitution in the referendum.

"If the referendum fails, it will create continuing problems and a chaotic situation," Defense Minister Boonrod Somtad said. "I think people want to see general elections, an elected government and a return to democracy."

If the people do not approve the draft in the referendum, the CNS and the Cabinet will have 30 days to choose and revise an earlier constitution, according to the interim constitution. Elections will still be held, but at a later date.

Meanwhile, around 500 protesters opposed to the interim government marched through the streets of Bangkok yesterday, calling on the public to reject the draft charter. They said the document was undemocratic because it was crafted by a military-appointed assembly.

The protest was organized by former members of Thaksin's now-dissolved Thai Rak Thai Party.

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