Pheu Thai backs charter referendum

Lawyers seek inclusion of 1997 version in vote

The Pheu Thai Party has joined the growing ranks of people calling for the draft charter to be put up for a national referendum.

In an exclusive interview with the Bangkok Post, Pheu Thai legal experts, led by Pongthep Thepkanchana and secretary-general Phumtham Wechayachai, insist a referendum must be carried out — and the public should be given a choice of an alternative if they don't like the one currently being written.

Asking the public to simply accept or reject the new charter is not enough, they say.

The voters should be given options and allowed to pick a version of a charter — for example the 1997 version — if they disagree with the coup-sponsored draft.

The experts' suggestion is in line with what the Democrat Party has proposed, but the Democrats called for the 2007 version, which was abolished after the May 22 coup, to be one of the choices.

According to Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, there is a chance for a public referendum because National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) chief, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, has never ruled it out.

Mr Abhisit outlined his support for a referendum in a previous interview with the Bangkok Post, saying it will not only ensure the legitimacy of the new charter, but it will also help quell any suspicions the charter has been designed to allow the coup-makers and other bodies set up after the coup to prolong their hold on power.

The growing push for a referendum comes as the Constitution Drafting Committee (CDC), headed by Borwornsak Uwanno, is close to completing the first draft of the document.

The summary of the new charter's main objectives has been forwarded to the National Reform Council (NRC) who under the interim charter will decide whether to accept or reject the draft charter.

Mr Pongthep, a former deputy prime minister and Pheu Thai member, said voters should also be allowed to pick the charter they prefer if they choose to turn down the new charter.

"Do the people have a choice, a good choice, when they reject the draft charter? It shouldn't be like the last referendum in which the people had no idea what was waiting if they voted down the 2007 charter.

"Is it possible to adopt the 1997 version if the people don't like the new one? If we agree to do this, the people have a choice," he said. Mr Pongthep said the Pheu Thai Party prefers the 1997 version of the charter over the 2007 version because the 1997 charter is widely known and accepted as "the people's charter".

However, he said it is not possible to adopt the 1997 version in its entirety because some of its content would have to be revised to make the charter up to date with the current needs and circumstances in the country. 

The 2007 constitution, on the other hand, is the result of a coup that overthrew the Thaksin administration in September 2006.

Even though it was accepted in a referendum, the people were forced to vote for it, he said.

According to Mr Pongthep, the public was forced to accept the 2007 charter because they were told the only other option was an inferior charter. 

He said one of the principles of a referendum is that it allows people to debate and exchange their opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of the charter.

Mr Phumtham said the Pheu Thai Party is not intimidated by a referendum because at least the people get to decide what they want.

The Pheu Thai secretary-general said the party has opted for the 1997 constitution because it respects the process in which the charter came into effect.

Mr Pongthep said it is too early to say if Pheu Thai would campaign for the public to reject the draft of the new charter.

It depends on the content of the draft and parties are currently banned from conducting any political activities.

However, he said as far as he is concerned the content of the new draft is worse than the 2007 version.

Prior to the referendum on the 2007 constitution, the Pheu Thai Partly launched a campaign urging people to reject the coup-sponsored draft.

Mr Pongthep said the party would, under normal circumstances, explain the contents of the draft charter to the people so they can make an informed decision when they go to vote.

He said if the government decides to have a referendum now there is still time for public forums to be organised. 

Mr Pongthep said the CDC should listen to the public in addition to the suggestions from the NRC, the National Legislative Assembly, the cabinet and the NCPO.  

Mr Phumtham said that judging from the first draft of the new charter, the 1997 version is better because of the way it deals with things such as election systems for MPs and senators and checks and balance mechanisms.

"I think every proposal is likely to create problems. The election candidates will fight with each other [as a result of reduced House seats]. The party-list system is sure to have problems. There are problems everywhere you look," he said.

Mr Borwornsak, head of the CDC, said the new constitution will be an improvement on the previous 1997 and 2007 charters in terms of increasing the role and power of the people, especially their role in the national administration.

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Writer: Nattaya Chetchotiros & Aekarach Sattaburuth