Court clears the way for charter vote

Judges refuse Somchai's bid for debate injunction

The Constitution Court agreed Wednesday to consider a petition against the charter amendment bills before parliament.

The ruling allowed the joint sitting of MPs and senators to continue debate on constitutional amendments.

Late Wednesday, propelled by the Pheu Thai control of the Lower House, a solid majority approved all three amendment bills in principle, and sent them to committees for review, with a Pheu Thai majority ready to pass them.

Parliament passed all three bills on first reading.

On changing the senate to a fully elected body, the House voted 367-204 with 34 abstentions.

On changes to the current requirement to get parliamentary approval of "international contracts" the vote was 374-209 with 29 abstentions.

On removing the right of the public to file petitions directly to the Constitution Court, the House voted 374-206 with 25 MPs abstaining. This vote also included the proposal to abolish the dissolution of entire political parties in case of illegal acts by their executives.

Committees began examining the proposals Thursday. The bills will next proceed to the important second reading in the full House, but no date has been set.

Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn lodged the petition with the Constitution Court on Tuesday, hoping to derail the charter amendment debate.

The senator was concerned the amendments would be unconstitutional as they would deprive the public of the right to file petitions directly with the charter court.

The court Wednesday voted 3-2 to accept Sen Somchai's petition for consideration.

However, after more than an hour of deliberation, it found no proper cause to issue an injunction. 

Seen from the front or the back, parliament was still an empty chamber Wednesday, as MPs waited on the ruling of the Constitution Court.

Pimol Thampitakpong, spokesman for the court, said parliament was free to proceed with the debate and Wednesday night's vote.

Sen Somchai's petition centres on the proposed amendment to Section 68 of the charter.

Under the amendment, the public would no longer be able to directly petition the court to examine moves which could undermine the monarchy or grab power through unconstitutional means. All such petitions would have to first go through the attorney-general.

The court ordered Sen Somchai to prepare 312 copies of his petition for distribution to each of the senators and MPs who signed in support of the amendments.

The senators and MPs have 15 days to respond to Sen Somchai's petition.

A final court decision can be expected soon after.

Speaking prior to Wednesday's court decision, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra called on any differences involving charter amendment proposals to be ironed out in parliament.

Chief government whip Amnuay Khlangpha said parliament was to proceed with a vote late Wednesday and would set up vetting committees.

"There is no use worrying what will come next. We have a job to do here," he said.

He said government MPs are ready to testify before the charter court to respond to Sen Somchai's petition.

Meanwhile, five Pheu Thai MPs, led by Weng Tojirakarn, said they would file police complaints against the charter court judges.

Mr Weng claimed the judges violated Section 157 of the Criminal Code by accepting Sen Somchai's petition.

Mr Weng, also a core leader of the red-shirt United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship, said that the decision to accept the petition is illegal because the charter does not give the court the power to intervene in parliament's work.

Senator Direk Thuengfang, who spearheaded a campaign to amend sections 68 and 237, believes the court's final ruling would favour charter amendment supporters.

"I think the ruling will be based on the separation of powers. Parliament makes the laws, so it has the mandate to amend the charter," he said.

Sen Somchai's move also stirred criticism from Pheu Thai MPs Wednesday as they engaged in a parliamentary debate on the charter amendment drafts.

Pheu Thai Party MP for Sakon Nakhon, Niyom Vejkama, said he did not think the court had the power to decide.

Pheu Thai Party MP for Nan Chonlanan Srikaew agreed, saying that enacting and improving laws was parliament's job.

"The constitution empowers us to amend the charter, so I believe the court will take this into consideration," he said.

Parliament president Somsak Kiatsuranont ordered a vote to be taken on the bills late Wednesday, after a Pathum Thani senator proposed an end to the three-day debate despite protests by the opposition.

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