Former Thai Premier Says Constitution Vote Must Be Respected

  • Abhisit says country’s 20th constitution may not be its last
  • Draft charter backed by voters set to boost military influence

QuickTake: Thailand's Troubled Democracy

Former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said all sides of politics should respect Sunday’s vote in favor of a military-backed constitution, though he doesn’t believe the new charter will be the nation’s last.

"The people have decided and we need to respect that decision," Abhisit said in an interview Monday. "People want a certainty to move on. People want some kind of order and stability that had been restored by the coup to carry on. And people are still very clearly suspicious of the political establishment."

Abhisit, leader of the Democrats, the country’s oldest party, announced late last month he was opposed to the draft constitution written by a junta-appointed committee. In a rare moment of political unity in a country that has seen widespread unrest over the last decade, Abhisit’s view mirrored his opponents in the Pheu Thai party, which was ousted from power in a May 2014 coup.

Still, his position didn’t align with the referendum results from his party’s own strongholds in Bangkok or in the nation’s southern provinces, where the charter was overwhelmingly approved with almost 77 percent of the vote. Abhisit, 52, who has been party leader since 2005, said he wasn’t concerned that his stance would lead to calls for him to step down.

Military Influence

The Election Commission said that according to a preliminary count of 94 percent of the vote, 61.4 percent of voters approved the draft charter, with 38.6 percent against. Official results are expected Wednesday. Election authorities said turnout was about 55 percent of the 50.2 million eligible voters.

The passage of the charter means the junta is more likely to stick to its plan to hold general elections late next year. But the new document, which officials have said will purge the country of corruption and restore political stability, will also boost the military’s influence over any future elected governments.

Critics warn the constitution -- like past military-backed charters -- will ultimately lead to more political unrest for Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy. Thailand has seen 12 coups since the end of absolute rule by kings in 1932. This will be the nation’s 20th constitution in that time and the fifth in a decade.

"I can’t see it being the permanent highest law of the land for Thailand in the future," Abhisit said of the latest draft.

Accountable Government

The new charter will permit a non-elected prime minister, turn the senate into an appointed body with sitting members of the military as members and give extra power to the courts. Most worrying for politicians, the draft would require future governments to adhere to the junta’s 20-year strategic plan.

"I don’t share the belief that Thailand should get back to some kind of guided -- or misguided -- democracy," Abhisit said. "Looking to the future I am concerned that the needs of the people and the needs of the country cannot be served by an administration that is dominated by bureaucratic thinking."

The last time Thais voted in a referendum was in 2007, approving a draft written by appointees of a junta that had toppled the government of then-premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin’s party went on to win the next election, as it has every national poll since 2001. It was Thaksin’s sister Yingluck Shinawatra whose government was ousted in 2014.

Yingluck Trial

Thaksin lives abroad to avoid a prison term for a corruption conviction, while Yingluck is on trial for alleged dereliction of duty involving a money losing rice-purchasing program. Both say the charges are politically motivated.

"I don’t see why Thai people have to choose between a corrupt, abusive democratically elected government and no democracy," Abhisit said. "We should be aiming for a democratic system that gives rise to an accountable government."

Abhisit and his party, which hasn’t won a national election in more than two decades, have played a part in the last decade’s political drama, boycotting elections in 2006, which ultimately led to the Constitutional Court invalidating the results and setting the stage for the military takeover. His party also boycotted elections in 2014 amid protests by allies aimed at ousting Yingluck.

Abhisit’s own term was marked by anti-government protests in 2009 and 2010, the latter ending in riots, arson and a deadly military dispersal that altogether killed nearly 100 people, almost all civilians.

On Monday Abhisit also expressed concern about whether the military government was doing enough to help the nation’s poor, both in the short and long term.

"People say we are caught in the middle income trap, but for the poor here they are a long way from middle income," he said. "That’s why I think we need to lift the weakest so that the economy and the country can be strong. And to do so I think you need a very responsive government, one that is in touch with ordinary people."

He called on the government to be clear in its remaining time in power about the details of the reforms it intends to enact.

“Reform has become a word that just reflects the frustration with the status quo," he said. "Two years have passed and people are still quite in the dark about exactly what reforms are being implemented.”

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