Thai govt MPs to finalise strategy next week

Democrat MP Wirat Kallayasiri shakes hands with Government Chief Whip Udomdej Rattanasathien at the Constitution Court.

THAILAND - After yesterday's verdict by the Constitution Court, government MPs will discuss next week whether a public referendum should be held on charter changes and whether amendment should be done by article, the chief coalition whip said after the court ruling.

Udomdej Ratanasathien, an MP from the ruling Pheu Thai Party, said yesterday that a meeting of MPs from the coalition parties would be called on Monday or Tuesday to discuss their next move.

The court yesterday rejected petitions filed by five separate groups claiming that proponents of the constitutional amendments sought to overthrow the country's democratic system with the King as head of state. However, the court also suggested that it was not in line with the spirit of the Constitution for Parliament to allow the writing of a new constitution without first consulting the people, because the charter had been backed by the majority in a public referendum.

Udomdej said the government would have two options after the court verdict. The first choice was to hold a referendum on constitutional amendment while leaving the government-sponsored amendment bill intact. The second choice was to amend the Constitution by article, as recommended by the court yesterday.

The amendment bill was about to be voted on in the final parliamentary reading, earlier scheduled for June 5, when the court decided to accept for judicial review the five petitions against the amendment proponents.

Udomdej said earlier yesterday that he thought the amendment bill should be considered void with the court ruling. "That means there will be no constitution drafting assembly" to be set up to write a new charter if the amendment bill gets parliamentary approval, he added.

The chief government whip also criticised the court for "expanding the judicial power to interfere with the legislature's authority" in suggesting that a public referendum should be held to decide whether a new constitution should be written.

Chaturon Chaisang, a veteran politician linked to Pheu Thai, yesterday said the court verdict about the referendum would make it more difficult to amend the charter.

"This undemocratic constitution will lead to more and more political crises. And the politics will become more and more complex," said Chaturon, who completed his five-year political ban recently.

He also said the amendment proponents did not have to rush about the suspended amendment bill; the Constitution does not set a deadline for voting on the final reading.

The Constitution Court's team of spokesmen called a press conference after the verdict reading yesterday afternoon.

They explained that it was a suggestion by the court - and not a court order - for a public referendum to be held before writing of a new constitution to replace one that was approved in a referendum.

"Parliament has the right to take whatever action it thinks is appropriate. It may go ahead with voting in the third reading. But the Parliament president and Parliament will have to take responsibility for their action," said court spokesman Somrit Chaiwong.

In response to a reporter's question comparing the court to a "paper tiger" in this case, the chief spokesman, Pimon Thammapitakpong, said it made the ruling in line with the law and the scope of its power, without interfering with the authority of another institution.

The court yesterday also rejected petitions filed separately by yellow-shirt leader Chamlong Srimuang and former senator Ruangkrai Leekitwattana against all the parliamentarians involved in the deliberation on constitutional amendment.

The eight judges hearing the case voted 7-1 that the Constitution Court is empowered by the charter to rule on this case, and they voted unanimously to reject the petitions against the amendment proponents, according to the spokesmen.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the opposition Democrat Party, MP Theptai Senapong, said the court ruling was not beyond the expectation of many people.

"It's a win-win solution. The people who threatened the court [members] will have no reason to harm them. The political tension will be eased slightly," he said.

A group of Democrat MPs filed one of the five petitions that were rejected by the court yesterday.

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