Abhisit’s decision to back away from constitutional reform will help erode the blur of legitimacy that his government has enjoyed.
Coming to power in the most dubious circumstances, and on the back of an explicitly anti-democratic campaign waged by the yellow-shirts, one of Abhisit’s best assets was the promise of constitutional reform that could provide a platform for a general election and, possibly, a degree of national reconciliation. The prospects of constitutional reform (along with the global financial crisis) helped to blur the political battle lines somewhat, positioning Abhisit as a national caretaker who would guide Thailand through tumultuous times.
By baulking at constitutional reform, Abhisit has brought the divisions back into focus. There is now a much clearer choice between the people’s constitution of 1997 and the general’s constitution of 2007. Abhisit’s action has highlighted the fact that he owes his prime-ministership to the un-democratic chain of events set in place by the coup of September 2006.
Of course Abhisit, and other supporters of the 2007 constitution may argue that it was endorsed by a national referendum and that it was approved by the king. But neither argument holds weight.
The referendum of 2007 was a farce. This is what I wrote at the time:
The referendum is a take-it-or-leave-it offer: if you want elections and a semblance of stability then vote yes. For those considering a no vote there is only the option of handing power to the constitutional vandals to nominate a constitution of their choosing. Unlike the referendums that most of us are used to, in this case there is no clearly defined constitutional status quo that would be the outcome of a successful no vote.
And remember that the outcome of this farce was that the constitution was endorsed by only 14.7 million of Thailand’s 45 million voters.
And what of the king’s signature? This is a tricky argument for Abhisit to pursue. Most fair-minded observers would recognise that the king’s endorsement was ceremonial formality. Such ritual acts of approval are what kings (and queens) are good at in modern constitutional monarchies. To argue that the royal signature represented more than that would be to suggest that the king actually endorsed a model of constitutional change that combined illegal military intervention with a no-choice referendum.
Surely that’s not the case!