New referendum law sails through Parliament

New referendum law sails through Parliament

(Parliament photo)
(Parliament photo)

Parliament has passed a new referendum law, paving the way for amendments or a rewrite of the constitution.

As a reform law, the bill was debated on Tuesday in a joint sitting of both houses. MPs and senators later voted 611-4 with two abstentions in its favour.

Under the law, a referendum can be held in five cases:

  • constitution amendments
  • issues deemed necessary by a cabinet resolution
  • issues required by law that a referendum be held on
  • issues Parliament votes to be put to a referendum
  • at least 50,000 voters propose to the cabinet for approval 

The law allows for the first time Thais living abroad to vote in a referendum by registering in the countries in which they reside.

Voting is also allowed to be done by mail and electronic means.

On charter amendments, the president of Parliament would ask the prime minister to announce in the Royal Gazette on a date agreed upon with the EC within 90-120 days from being informed. 

On other issues decided by the cabinet, the timeframe for a referendum is also 90-120 days from the date the cabinet approves it.

The EC will then organise a referendum, which may include voting by mail or through electronic means.

Those eligible to vote are Thais aged 18 or more, or naturalised foreigners who have held Thai citizenship for at least five years, on the date of the referendum.

Their names must also be on house registers not less than 90 days before a referendum date.

Those who cannot vote are monks or priests; those whose election rights have been revoked, regardless of whether a court ruling is final; those who are detained or of unsound mind.

Related information must be propagated in advance, 15 days after the referendum is announced on issues related to a constitution.

The EC will act as a watchdog on the expression of opinions ahead of the vote. Campaigns by both sides are allowed.   

Section 60 punishes the propagation of false information on the issue being put to a referendum with five years in jail and/or a fine of not more than 100,000 baht.

The penalties prompted concerns by some MPs during the debate on Tuesday. They feared they might be used to suppress dissent like happened ahead of the referendum on the 2016 constitution.

Section 13 says a resolution is reached when more than half of eligible voters exercise their right to vote and, of that number, more than half vote either "yes" or "no" on the question.

The passage of the law will pave the way for a referedum to be held to ask people whether they want a new constitution to be rewritten by an elected drafting body as proposed by the opposition.

Earlier, such attempts were blocked after the Constitutional Court ruled in March people must be asked first in a referendum whether they want a new charter. It did not say at which stage of charter amendments the referendum should be held.

Activists allege the constitution, drafted under a military regime, was instrumental in helping Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and his backers retain power after elections in 2019. They’re seeking a revamp, along with Gen Prayut’s resignation and reform of the monarchy

On Thursday, lawmakers are expected to vote on the first reading of their proposed amendments, which include changes to general election rules.

On the same day, the 89th anniversary of the Siamese Revolution, pro-democracy activists planned to return to the streets, with several gatherings scheduled in Bangkok after a six-month hiatus during the first half of this year due to Covid-19 outbreaks.

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