Plebiscite minus political parties?

With Thailand’s first-ever referendum to approve a new constitution steadily approaching, a debate about the role political parties should play in this plebiscite has taken centre stage. The final arbiters will be the military junta, which captured power through a coup last September and banned all political party activity within weeks. Comments made by the military leadership since the beginning of June have still to clear the air about a possible shift to the post-coup decrees, giving room for parties to enter the fray.

But there is little doubt about how the Constitution Drafting Assembly (CDA) views the days leading up to Aug. 19, the most likely date for the referendum.

“It is going to be without political parties,” Pisit Leeahtam, spokesman for the CDA, said.

“We will have to explain the final draft of the charter to the public.” The charter at the centre of the debate is the country’s 18th since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The first draft was released by the military-appointed Constitution Drafting Committee in late April for public discussions across the country. “We are now finalising the comments made and suggested amendments,” says Pisit. “The final document will be ready by the end of June.”

Yet shutting out political parties from this process may not be easy. More so following a landmark judgement delivered on May 30 by the Constitutional Tribunal. This military-appointed body of jurists absolved the Democrat party, the country’s oldest, of committing election fraud linked to a controversial general election in April 2006. The tribunal was more harsh with the Thai Rak Thai (TRT— Thais Love Thai) party, the country’s largest. It was found guilty of election malpractice during the same poll, resulting in a judgement that dissolved the TRT and banned 111 of its leaders from politics for five years.

Little wonder why Abhist Vejjajiva wants to end his party’s isolation from the thrust and parry of politics. “We would like to see the lifting of the (decree) to allow parties to register and participate,” Abhisit, head of the 61-year-old Democrat party, said. “We see no reason why this order could not be lifted.” “Parties should be able to communicate with the people about the referendum,” he added. “A continued ban would challenge the legitimacy of the process and could create instability.”

The Council for National Security (CNS), as the junta officially calls itself, has made little secret of its contempt for the TRT, accusing it of undermining democracy and securing wealth through corrupt deals while in power.

Such hostility towards the TRT has also influenced the constitution-drafting process, with the language in the charter aimed at limiting the role of political parties and electoral politics in this South-east Asian nation’s future.

“I don’t think the CNS will be able to keep the ban on political parties for too long,” Michael Nelson, a German academic specialising in Thai political culture, said. “It will only increase pressure on the CNS and make more people angry with them.”

“The referendum is the next major test for them and they need to take a risk and let the parties play a role,” he added. “Preventing them from entering the process may actually result in the parties influencing their supporters to vote against the referendum.” — IPS