The strongest move by the country’s oldest political party since the charter drafting began months ago has injected more heat into the political situation. The Democrats are opposed to the question proposed by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) on whether the appointed Senate should be empowered to join elected MPs in voting to select a new prime minister.
The Democrats, though, have so far declined to join the Pheu Thai Party in campaigning against the draft constitution, arguing that a no vote would lead to a redrafting of the charter and an extension of military rule.
Instead, they are calling on Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to clarify what a new charter would look like should the current draft fail to pass the national vote, tentatively scheduled for August 7. Government figures have suggested that a previous charter or mixture of charters could be wheeled into place should a no vote prevail.
The Democrat Party had previously fallen in line with the ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), but that has now changed.
The NCPO, meanwhile, has been consistently critical of politicians – particularly those who voice opposition to its rule. Democrat leader Abhisit Vejjajiva has now joined other politicians in rousing the junta’s ire. The Democrats have dubbed the draft constitution “ democracy in retreat”. Abhisit said the draft “distorts the democratic will and weakens people’s power compared with state authority”.
In response, General Prayut, who also heads the NCPO, slammed politicians who criticised the draft and the NLA’s additional question, saying it was a matter for voters. “They [politicians] have no right to decide whether to disagree or not. This is a national referendum and it’s a matter for the people,” he said.
Soldiers subsequently seized more than 1,600 boxes of medicines bearing the Democrat leader’s image and due to be distributed for Songkran by party officials in Kamphaeng Phet. The seizure marked the first such military action against the Democrats. Earlier, thousands of red Songkran bowls bearing a message from former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra were seized from Pheu Thai Party politicians.
Abhisit urged the junta to be more tolerant of opinions different from its own. He said it could not force agreement and should instead heed opinions expressed with good intention. “The prime minister should not view people who disagree with him as enemies. They are in fact his good friends,” he said.
Only time will tell just how far the Democrats are willing to go in their opposition to the charter draft and additional referendum question. Meanwhile observers will be watching for changes in their relationship with the NCPO. It should be noted that many of the party’s supporters are avid backers of the junta. Will the Democrats be able to win back support from these people when the dust settles?
If the Democrats are serious about their opposition and also manage to regain support from disillusioned backers, the draft charter and the additional question are unlikely to get an easy passage at the referendum. As it has turned out, the country’s two largest political parties are both against the draft constitution.