BANGKOK - The leadership of Thailand’s oldest political party, the Democrats, has joined other political groups in opposing a military-backed draft constitution.
The Democrat Party’s opposition leaves in doubt an August referendum on the new charter, as it lines up with other political parties in calling for the document to be rejected.
The party leadership, led by former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, openly criticized the new draft charter, calling the document "democracy in retreat."
Abhisit, at a press conference late Sunday, said the draft distorted the democratic will and weakened the people’s power compared with the authority of the state.
He also criticized the draft for depriving people of their right to participate in the political process.
The military government, which came to power in 2014, has called for amendments to a recently completed second draft charter that would include a military appointed 250-member Senate.
This varied from the drafting committee’s version that called for a 200-member Senate comprised of members elected from organizations and social groups within the country.
Thailand’s other major political party, the Pheu Thai Party, ousted from power in 2014, has already opposed the draft charter and called for voters to reject it at the August referendum.
Several Pheu Thai Party members have been detained by the military for short periods for so-called “attitude-adjustment” talks, with the government planning to set up additional camps for further detentions.
Smarn Lertwongrath, a senior Pheu Thai Party member, said he welcomed the Democrat Party’s stance on the charter despite the delay in their response.
“If you are thinking as Thailand needs democracy to run the country, you have to oppose the draft constitution. The problem is that the Democrats were very slow to oppose it, but anyhow it’s slow but it’s better to do that way. They have to do it,” Smarn said.
“What Khun [honorific] Abhisit says yesterday is good for our country. I think an election with the rule that is not democratic look is not good,” he said.
Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha is reported to have attacked politicians who criticize the draft charter.
Prayuth said the military would press ahead with reforms and if successful, he said the political parties may lose popular support.
Next steps unclear
On Monday, the prime minister called for clarification on what will happen if the charter is rejected at the referendum.
Recent public opinion polls have indicated most respondents support the military-backed national legislative assembly’s move to add the question of a wider role for the Senate to the August 7 referendum.
Until now, the referendum was simply slated to be a question of support for the new charter alone, with a simple majority determining the outcome.
But Democrat Party member and rights advocate Kraisak Choonhavan said with the major political parties likely to oppose the referendum, the next step in the charter process is unclear.
“Why should we get to a referendum when the two biggest parties – in fact, three parties – in all that disagree with this? It’s not going forward,” Kraisak said. “In fact, it is because of that, because it’s moving backward if you like in the highest law of the land, for that reason we’re not moving forward at all.”
Analysts say in the event of the draft charter being rejected in August the military government may select a previous charter with amendments and without public participation to take the country into the next elections, expected in 2017.
Potential protests ahead
Thai analysts and politicians say concerns are that the military is seeking to extend its period in power amid fears of the military taking a tougher stance towards any criticism of its government.
Already analysts fear a repeat of past crackdowns, such as in 1992, when the military moved to appoint an army general, Suchinda Krayprayoon, to the post of prime minister. The military had seized power in February 1991.
Deadly pro-democracy protests in May 1992 left dozens killed and scores injured and led to Suchinda stepping down under an amnesty after just 47 days in office.
Rights activists warn of potential protests in the months ahead, especially in provincial regions most affected by the military government's determination to move ahead with mega-project developments.
But analysts say the Thai middle class, a driving force in past political protests, remains largely dormant at present, wary after years of political conflict and uncertainties surrounding a slowing economy.