Thailand debates Constitution change to end deadlock

Thailand’s premier urged lawmakers on Wednesday to resolve a seemingly intractable political crisis in a debate on constitutional reforms that analysts say could be the best shot at ending years of turmoil.

Lawmakers began a two-day debate on whether amendments to an army-drafted Constitution could bring stability after four years of political strife that has included assassination attempts, violent rallies and the seizure of an airport by protesters.

Key issues are changes to the electoral system and laws on political bans.

”There is a need to find a resolution on politics, especially concerning the rule of politics that is acceptable by all sides,” Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said in his opening statement to the joint session of upper and lower houses.

Thailand passed a new Constitution in a 2007 referendum, under heavy pressure by the military that seized power in a 2006 coup.

Critics say the current charter favours the country’s elites, unlike the 1997 Constitution drafted with public participation to break a cycle of coups and corruption.

Much is at stake in deeply polarised Thailand and some question whether the process can succeed without public participation, and how willing the parties are to compromise.

”If there is no deal, then the different protagonists remain far apart and stability is unlikely to return to the country,” said Roberto Herrera-Lim, an analyst at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consultancy.

Some also fear the reform process itself could deepen a crisis that has already triggered a credit rating downgrade of Southeast Asia’s second-biggest economy.

A poll released on Wednesday by the Asia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, showed that while 45 percent of Thais thought charter change could help defuse the crisis, the same number felt it could further divide the country.

Contentious issues
The big parties in Abhisit’s ruling Democrat-led coalition want a return to a single-seat constituency system, fearing the current multi-seat format heavily favours the Puea Thai Party, backed by ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra.

Another contentious issue is whether to change a law known as Article 237 that bans all executives of a political party from politics for five years in the event that one individual is found guilty of electoral fraud.

The fairness of the law has been widely questioned. Critics say it has been a key factor in destabilising the country and weakening the democratic system by sidelining many lawmakers.

The yellow-shirted People’s Alliance for Democracy, royalists who despise Thaksin, are certain to oppose changes to the article since it could lead to amnesty for 230 banned politicians, most of whom served in pro-Thaksin parties dissolved by the courts.

There are also fears that such an amendment would usher-in a new wave of ”yellow shirt” protests that would alarm investors. If the law remains unchanged, pro-Thaksin ”red shirt” demonstrators might also ramp-up their pressure on the government.

Some academics and analysts believe the process is already flawed and say the debate will be driven by vested interests.

”I don’t see how this can solve the problem, the country is too divided and there will be no agreement or real political reform,” said Pitch Pongsawat, a political science lecturer at Chulalongkorn University. — Reuters

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