Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

Countdown to Chavalit's Resignation

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Affairs

Countdown to Chavalit's Resignation

Article excerpt

August was a month of high political drama. The Constitution Drafting Committee was finalizing its draft with provisions for far-reaching political reform. Given that Parliament was not allowed to amend it, rejection was expected, followed by a emotion-charged referendum. If, however, the draft became law, organic laws would have to pass through Parliament within the time limit of eight months, during which period the incumbent government was not allowed to dissolve Parliament. The Chavalit coalition, now blamed for the economic mess, might prolong its life by this very provision. The feat to be accomplished, as it were, was to get the Constitution passed, and to get a government better able to handle the economic crisis, taking care not to affect unduly market confidence.

On 15 August the CDA approved its draft Constitution by a near unanimous vote. On the same day the IMF deal was agreed upon and a cabinet reshuffle announced. Chavalit had found two props, one technocratic, the other political, to extend his government's life. Both were made deputy prime ministers. Virabongse Ramangura, a trusted technocrat in the Prem semi-democracy governments who had urged an IMF rescue package, was to look after IMF relations and financial reforms. Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon and former Palang Dharma Party leader once popular with the Bangkok middle class, was to oversee other economic matters. Chavalit's trusted friend and party financier Sukhavit Rangsitpol, attacked for months over his educational reform plan involving the purchase of computers for schools above the market price, had his Education portfolio removed but retained the deputy prime ministership.

The CDA immediately ran a campaign in support of its draft starting with a march on 18 August led by Uthai and Anand and joined by pro-democracy groups and the general public. Banana-leaf green became the symbol of support; flags, stickers, and T-shirts in the colour were sold and copies of the draft distributed.

Opposition to the draft had surfaced earlier, but now it was better articulated. Veteran politician Samak Sundaravej, well known for his directness, objected to the party-list system, arguing that it would favour the large and well-established Democrat Party and penalize small ones like his own Prachakorn Thai. Some parliamentarians resented the degree-level educational qualification for contesting election, and ministers expressed disquiet at the ease with which political parties could be set up. However, criticisms centred around the decentralization and accountability provisions, which many senators, politicians, and bureaucrats found unacceptable. They mobilized the sub-district and village heads who, elected for life until recently, were still under the Ministry of Interior's chain of command. Minister Sanoh Thientong (NAP) constantly objected to the provision giving 50,000 voters the right to seek Senate removal from office of parliamentarians, judges, and other political officers deemed to have engaged in corrupt practices. Such mass power would bring havoc, he predicted. Permanent Secretary Chuwong Chayabutr immediately resonated his views, and before long the Sub-District and Village Heads' Association under the leadership of Senator Nibhond Sorakarn rose to object to its members being deprived of ex officio chairmanships of the Sub-District Administrative Organizations.

Chavalit was non-committal on the draft, despite having promised on becoming prime minister to facilitate its drafting and to call for new elections once the organic laws were in place. It was now doubted he would keep his promises. The main opposition party, the Democrats, had tactically decided to support the draft.

From civil society, a number of ideas were floated. On the change of government, a public lawyer was keen on a royally appointed prime minister, and political reform activist Prawase suggested that Chavalit might gain from discussing "a national strategy" with His Majesty. …

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