Thai govt plans to amend charter 'illegal'

Thai govt plans to amend charter 'illegal'

THE Thai government averted a political crisis on Wednesday, when the country's Constitutional Court ruled that its plans to amend the charter were illegal but stopped short of dissolving the ruling Puea Thai party.

The current Constitution was drawn up under an interim administration after then prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was unseated by a coup in 2006.

In September this year, the Puea Thai-dominated Parliament passed a charter amendment that would change the structure of the Senate from the current 150-member body - of which about half are appointed - to a 200-member Upper House which is fully elected.

It would have also allowed relatives and spouses of parliamentarians to run for Senate seats.

Opponents argued that the change would put too much power in the hands of the Puea Thai's political network, which already dominates Thailand's Lower House. Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra is the Prime Minister.

Those in favour of the charter amendment, however, had said that it would help pare down the power of Thailand's old elites and give more say to the electorate.

On Wednesday, the court announced that the charter amendment violated regulations. It pointed out, for example, that having members of both the Upper and Lower Houses elected would erode the checks and balances in the political system. In addition, it noted that some parliamentarians had voted by proxy.

The court also denied a request by the opposition to dissolve parties in the ruling coalition.

Chulalongkorn University political scientist Siripan Nogsuan called the verdict an attempt to "balance power" between the pro- and anti-government forces.

"They didn't want to push it too far and dissolve the Puea Thai," she said. "If that happened, it would create a civil war, and that no one wants to see."

Just before the verdict, the mood in the capital was tense. Both anti-government protesters as well as pro-government "red shirt" supporters were gathered in different sections of Bangkok to await the announcement.

The Constitutional Court has played a key role in recent Thai politics, having forced out two prime ministers linked to Thaksin - Mr Samak Sundaravej and Mr Somchai Wongsawat - in 2008.

Just two weeks ago, the Puea Thai was forced to retreat on a contentious amnesty Bill that would have allowed exiled Thaksin to return a free man. He lives in self-exile overseas to avoid a jail term for corruption.

The Bill, which was passed by the Lower House on Nov 1, brought thousands out onto the streets in protest.

While the Senate later rejected the Bill and Puea Thai promised not to revive it, the protesters have now turned their attention to ousting the government instead.

That, in turn, has drawn a robust response from the Puea Thai's red shirt supporters. On Tuesday, they rallied tens of thousands of members at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium, stoking fears of a confrontation.

The court ruling appears to have dampened that possibility - for now.

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