Moving back toward democracy after last year's coup, Thailand is to hold its first-ever national referendum today to choose a new constitution. But the choice is limited to voting yes or no on a charter designed to curb the power of politicians.
Critics complain that neither democracy nor choice is playing much of a role in the proceedings, because a rejection of the military-approved proposal means the generals will then be free to impose a constitution without further consultation with the voters.
A "yes" vote would bring elections by December. A "no" vote would be followed by elections a month or so later.
Defenders of the proposed charter concede it is imperfect, but argue it is the best way out of the political morass that led the military to seize power last Sept. 19 amid growing unrest over alleged corruption and abuse of power by then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I think this constitution will be able to solve a number of problems that we have had faced in the past, so definitely in terms of various clauses I quite think it is going to be appropriate for Thai culture and politics," said Surat Horachaikul, a political science professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University.
Thailand's 45.6 million voters have had about three weeks to study the 186-page document proposed as the country's 18th constitution. The interim government installed by the military has sent out teams in colorful costumes to hand out leaflets encouraging people to vote.
"I hope that at least more than half of the eligible voters will turn out and vote for the constitution, so that democracy will move forward," Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont said yesterday in a television interview. He reconfirmed that a general election will be held in December if the draft passes.
A senior Interior Ministry official, Pongphayom Wasaphuthi, said the government was expecting a voter turnout of more than 60 percent.
The new charter would 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 process 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.
Thailand has been administered since the bloodless coup under an interim constitution that keeps the military -- through its Council for National Security -- in control behind the veneer of temporary civilian rule.
The major changes proposed in the new draft charter emphasize checks and balances at the expense of participatory democracy.
It would turn the Senate back into a partly appointed body -- the 1997 constitution made it a 100 percent elective office -- change electoral procedures in a manner that weakens political parties, and shift several responsibilities -- such as appointments to independent government commissions, to the judiciary from the executive branch.
With the proposed draft, veteran politician and former house speaker Uthai Pimchaichon said, "we will get coalition governments which are weak and that will lead to an unending circle of military coups."
In immediate practical terms, however, the distinction between a yes vote and a no vote is a fine one.