Saturday, December 22, 2012

The question is: What is the question?

If you really listened to Premier Yingluck's story about the proposed constitutional amendment, you might be led to believe that it's about the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

If, however, you read between the lines, there isn't much of a separation after all.

At first, she said the whole issue about rewriting the charter to make it more democratic didn't really have anything to do with her government. "It's a parliamentary thing," the premier repeated that several times recently until last Saturday when she spoke on her weekly radio and television show.

In that programme, Yingluck perhaps for the first time elaborated on how her Cabinet will pave the way for a national referendum on the proposal to amend the charter BEFORE Parliament votes on the third (and final) reading of the bill to rewrite the constitution.

In other words, she was admitting that the issue would no longer be an exclusive function of the legislative body (in which her Pheu Thai Party) holds the majority votes anyway. By detailing the next steps of the political move, the premier was confirming what everybody else had concluded all along -- that both the Cabinet and ruling party in the House are very much in sync over the political direction.

Yingluck didn't hide the fact that she had consulted her brother, former Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, over the charter move. It's no secret either that the Pheu Thai leaders have been getting director instructions on what to do and how to proceed over the issue from the same person. Only some very naive political observers would be ignorant of the fact the government and party are joined at the hips.

It was probably no coincidence that just one day before the premier laid down her detailed steps on the constitutional issue, leaders of the coalition government met and issued a joint statement that echoed a similar strategy: A national referendum would be held before the pro-government MPs move to vote on the final reading of the constitution amendments.

It was clearly a subtle shift in strategy to pacify opponents to the move from the opposition parties and critics in various circles who have vowed to protest against the "rush to ram through the changes" to satisfy the powers-that-be.

A move to bulldoze the bill through the House would have produced a new round of political confrontation that could spark a new round of violence on the streets. Premier Yingluck indicated that the tactical shift to move the referendum up front (instead of organizing it after the new charter is drawn up) was clearly aimed at preventing a new round of showdown between the Pheu Thai Party and all the anti-Thaksin elements.

"We would like to involve the people in the process from the start so that there won't be any tension," she said.

But holding a referendum based on the confidence that the ruling party could garner a clear majority (based on the 14 million votes Pheu Thai got in the last general election) doesn't guarantee a smooth sailing all the way.

Pheu Thai MP for Yasothorn province Peerapan Palusuk said voters must be presented with only one question— whether they agree with a proposal to create a drafting assembly to write a new charter or not.

That will create a new set of issues since there is no basic disagreement on whether or not the charter could be amended – for the right reason, for the right purpose, at the right time. And that means any changes should empower the people in general, and not to benefit any particular group of politicians – as is the question being raised in the ongoing controversy.

The first question to address, therefore, is what question (or questions) to be posed to the people in the referendum. The forming of an assembly is only the mechanism towards the eventual changes. The crux of the conflict – that the government claims to be trying to resolve – is the substance and not the form or wherewithal.

Unless the real issue of the conflict between the advocates and opponents of the proposed amendments is resolved before the next step is taken, the country could slide back into another show-down.

And, as all parties concerned realize, the next confrontation will be much worse than all the preceding ones.

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